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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington--Divisions in the CIS

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between Moscow, Kyiv and Minsk have deteriorated markedly in recent days, a pattern that threatens their cooperation within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and possibly the future of that organization.

First, Moscow last week announced that it was prepared to introduce special taxes and quotas on key Ukrainian commodities being imported into the Russian Federation. Not only would such taxes violate the letter and the spirit of the CIS accord, but they would have, in the words of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, "dreadful consequences" for his country.

Indeed, Kuchma suggested, such a unilateral Russian action could lead to an "economic war" between the two countries. And such a "war" would not end there: Kuchma indicated that he believed the Russian side was acting for political rather than economic motives, a statement that suggests Kyiv will respond in kind.

Then, Tuesday, the Russian National Security Council -- which is headed by Aleksandr Lebed -- released a statement that it now plans to get involved with negotiations on the division of the Black Sea fleet.

The press release said that Moscow "proceeds from the firm conviction that the presence of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea is an important consolidating factor of good-neighborly relations between Russia and Ukraine." And the statement adds that the Russian presence there guarantees the stability of energy shipments from Asia to Europe and aids cooperation with NATO.

While Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko dismissed the Security Council announcement, few statements from Moscow could have angered Kyiv more. On the one hand, Lebed has hardened Moscow's negotiating position on the fleet, something the retired general may be inclined to do to deflect criticism that he gave away too much in Chechnya, but not something that will make the talks easier.

On the other hand, the council's suggestion that Moscow will try to invoke Western interests to get its way will only cause Kyiv to feel even more isolated or to move even more dramatically to seek additional Western support.

Given that Moscow has announced special naval exercises in the Black Sea for later this month, this conflict could expand dramatically over the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, relations between Moscow and Minsk have also been on the downswing. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's increasingly authoritarian and erratic behavior has embarrassed and infuriated those in Moscow who want closer ties with Belarus.

But Lukashenka's recent expansive statements that he is in the closest possible touch with Russian officials appears to have touched a nerve. Over the weekend, Moscow media reported that various Russian officials had not had the meetings he claimed. Moreover, these same media outlets suggested that Lukashenka had been dishonest in his descriptions of just what the meetings he did have were about.

Given the increasing tensions between Lukashenka and his own people, Moscow has little interest in appearing to back up someone whose policies have already infuriated Western countries as well.

And even relations between Minsk and Kyiv are deteriorating. The Ukrainian authorities were anything but pleased with a recent Belarusian court decision against seven Ukrainians who participated in anti-Lukyashenka demonstrations last spring. Kyiv's consul in Minsk said the trial was unfair and that Ukraine would appeal the case, a position that has angered Lukashenka's regime.

Obviously, none of these developments is necessarily fatal to relationships among the three largest members of the CIS, but coming together as they do, they put strains on both that organization and the internal politics of each of the three Slavic member states.

And that in turn is likely to give other CIS governments more room for maneuver, something that would likely trouble Moscow as well.