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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Yeltsin's CIS Ultimatum

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has told the presidents of the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States that they must accept a tighter Moscow-led union or face a bleak future.

Yeltsin delivered this ultimatum in a closed session at the March 28 CIS summit. But a text of his speech to that group was published only on Friday by the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

According to its editor, Yeltsin's speech "on many issues did not entirely fit in with the spirit of Russian propaganda" about CIS relations. And as delivered, it was "even somewhat harsher" than the published text.

But the published version is harsh enough and suggests just where the Russian president believes all the CIS countries must go.

Acknowledging that he was "not pleased" with the state of affairs in the CIS, Yeltsin argued that all its 12 member states -- Russian included -- must soon make a fundamental choice between a prosperous, stable future and a poor, conflict-ridden one.

He cast his remarks as a series of either-or choices. Either the CIS countries will become "industrial" states or they will be "raw material suppliers" to the West.

Either they will take steps to become a "region of peace, trust and cooperation" or they will become "a zone of chronic conflict, rivalry, and suspicion."

Either they will move to cooperate in economic, political and military spheres or they will find themselves isolated and dependent on outside forces, including the often "unfavorable" world market.

While he cast the issue in terms of a number of choices, Yeltsin made it clear that he and Russia have made their own choice for tighter integration and thus for avoiding the disasters he outlined.

And he made it clear, despite some familiar diplomatic language about respecting the "sovereignty, independence and interests of Commonwealth states," that Moscow will insist on playing the dominant role in this new, tighter union.

It will use its power to prevent the formation of "anti-Russian buffer states" within the CIS and it will withdraw Russian peacekeepers from conflict regions unless the countries involved provide Moscow with what he called "proper support."

And Yeltsin made it clear that he equated "anti-integration" sentiments in the CIS as the equivalent of "anti-Russian forces."

The Russian president has rarely been this blunt in public about his intentions toward Russia's neighbors. Instead, Yeltsin has pushed for integration in more conventional ways.

His shift to the new hardline, possibly reflecting his impatience with developments in the region and his fears about where Russia itself may be heading, is unlikely to elicit the response he seeks.

First of all, Russian bluster generally has pushed the former Soviet republics away from Moscow rather than attracting them to its cause. That is because Moscow today lacks both the unified will and physical ability to compell other states to follow its will.

Second, an ever greater number of these countries enjoy the benefits of closer ties both with outside countries and with subgroups of the CIS.

Yeltsin's outburst is unlikely to sway either countries like Moldova which are increasingly tied to the West or Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine which have formed their own cooperative arrangements.

And third, as the current debate on Yeltsin's new union treaty with Belarus shows, few Russians are prepared to follow the Russian president's lead if it is costly to themselves.

By suggesting that Russians need this unity every bit as much as the non-Russians, Yeltsin is clearly trying to change their minds. But except for already committed Russian nationalists, few Russian citizens beyond the political class are likely to be swayed.

And since the non-Russian countries know that, few of them are likely to be moved.

Indeed, the only audience that might be affected is one that wasn't at the meeting: the West.

Yeltsin's speech, particularly as it included a ringing denunciation of NATO expansion, may have been intended to discourage any thinking in the West about including a former Soviet republic as a member.

But because neither Russians nor non-Russians seem likely to be impressed by Yeltsin's latest intervention, most Western governments are likely to remain unmoved as well.