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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington--The CIS At Five

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - As it marks its fifth birthday, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has not justified the hopes or the fears of any of the 12 former Soviet republics who are its member states or of the international community more broadly.

It has not been simply a fig leaf to cover the end of empire or the establishment of a new one. It has not become an organization like the European Union or NATO. And it has not become the primary defining element in the relations of its member countries with each other or with the outside world.

Instead, the CIS has served as an arena in which the complex bilateral and multilateral relationships of these new countries have been developed. And as such, it has served as a useful barometer of these ties, with some member states cooperating on some issues, others cooperating on others, and still others refusing to cooperate at all.

This often indefinite, internally inconsistent, and ad hoc quality of the CIS as an organization reflects the manner in which the CIS came into existence, the very different agendas of Russia and the other CIS countries, and the imperatives for both of the broader international system.

The CIS emerged in December 1991 as the result of three meetings designed to cope with the collapse of the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev. On December 8 of that year, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met outside of Minsk to divide up among themselves and their countries Moscow's powers.

Frightened by this display of Slavic unity, the republics of Central Asia convened in Turkmenistan to consider an alternative organizational structure for the future of the Soviet republics.

And sensing that events were rapidly slipping out of control, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the two other Slavic republic presidents then called for a joint meeting of the two groups in Almaty where the declaration creating the CIS was adopted.

In all of these meetings, each president was guided by his own sense of what was best for himself and his republic and what was possible under the circumstance.

Memoir accounts suggest that Yeltsin and some of the other presidents saw the CIS as providing the basis for the radical transformation of the Soviet Union while other presidents saw it as simply a divorce court that would allow them to go their own way.

Those differences have continued to be reflected in the activities of the organization. Despite frequent suggestions to the contrary, rarely have all 12 member states agreed on anything. And the number of countries prepared to cooperate even on basic issues has declined over the past several years.

The reasons for that trend are obvious: Each country as an independent state wants to retain as much freedom of action as it can.

For Russia, the largest of the 12 members, that has meant opposing efforts by Kazakhstan and others to set clear and tighter rules for the organization and frequently ignoring its CIS commitments when it has suited Russian purposes.

For the other countries, each of which is significantly smaller and less powerful, that political imperative has meant signing and observing only those agreements that serve their purposes and often not even showing up at CIS meetings.

As a result, the multilateral CIS has often been little more than a collective term for the sum of the increasingly bilateral relationships among these countries.

And that pattern in turn reflects the imperatives of the broader international system. On the one hand, at least some in the Russian government in 1991 sought to create the CIS in order to reassure the world that Moscow would not lose control of nuclear weapons on Soviet territory.

Currently, at least some in the Russian government see great value in having a nominally multilateral organization to cover Moscow's actions in pursuit of its own interests around the former Soviet periphery.

Because of such calculations, the Russian government seems likely to continue to press for international recognition of the CIS as a regional security organization, even though it has few characteristics of one.

But on the other hand, each of the 12 very different countries in the CIS has a very different set of interests, values, and resources. And these differences, rather than the commonalty of having been former Soviet republics or members of the CIS increasingly define their relationships with other countries around the world.