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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Jackals And The Lion

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the Commonwealth of Independent States prepares for a summit in Moscow next week, one of Russia's leading foreign policy commentators is arguing that Moscow should stop trying to integrate the former Soviet space on the basis of the CIS and instead deal one-on-one with each of the former Soviet republics.

Appearing at a roundtable discussion organized by the Russian foreign policy journal "International Affairs," Sergey Karaganov suggests that the CIS today "is a rare example of a retrograde movement in history" and that overcoming "illusions" about it will serve Moscow's interests as it attempts to expand its influence in the countries which are now its members.

Karaganov, who is chairman of the prestigious Russian Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and deputy director of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe, has frequently been a bellwether for Russian policy toward the former Soviet republics. And as a result, his argument now is likely to affect how Moscow approaches the upcoming CIS summit.

According to Karaganov, the CIS "has long been moving at a growing rate in the direction of its own disintegration." He suggests it crossed that Rubicon five or six years ago, when it failed to serve as the basis for creating an integrated economic space on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It has been retained, Karaganov insists, largely because current Russian leaders bear some responsibility for the demise of the USSR.

Because that opportunity was missed, Karaganov continues, the increasing differences among these countries have now made it impossible to create such an integrated economic space, and the more than 1000 CIS agreements that some of its members have signed have had the effect of discrediting the very idea of future cooperation.

Karaganov then argues that the non-Russian countries made "a major strategic mistake" in not agreeing to a tight political arrangement five years ago, one that would have restricted Russia's freedom of action even more than their own. Indeed, he suggests that this mistake was "a paragon of foreign policy idiocy."

But in fact, several CIS leaders, particularly Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, did push at that time for a more precisely defined arrangement among the Commonwealth countries, and Russian leaders routinely refused to agree, a reflection of their recognition at the time of what Karaganov is suggesting now.

Karagnov then suggests that the non-Russian leaders now recognize their "mistake" and are forming various coalitions and alliances -- such as GUAM which unites Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova and may expand to include others as well -- to gang up on Russia as Karaganov suggests they did at the CIS summit in Kishinev in 1997.

In describing these moves, Karaganov offers the following metaphor. He suggests that the non-Russian leaders now recognize that "only a pack of jackals can tear a lion to pieces." And he asks rhetorically what policy the lion, even if he is "sick and wounded," should adopt. And he suggests that "more likely than not" there is only one answer: "to crush the jackals one by one."

Unfortunately, as Karaganov notes, Russia lacks "the political and economic resources" needed to do so and therefore should remain calm, recognizing that at present "there is no need to crush anyone."

While some observers may see this comment as vitiating his metaphor, many of the leaders of the CIS member states are likely to see it as something else: an effort to pressure them into following Moscow's line now lest Moscow deal with them one by one in the future as Karaganov's wounded "lion" might deal with individual "jackals." While some of these leaders may be impressed by Karaganov's logic, others certainly will not be, thus setting the stage for a possibly contentious CIS summit on April 2 and an even more contentious future set of relationships between Russia and her neighbors.