Washington, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Agreements this week between five former Soviet republics to create a Eurasian Economic Community and among six of them to a five-year regional security arrangement highlight the continuing decline of the Commonwealth of Independent States as the preeminent organization of the 12 post-Soviet states.
And that development in turn simultaneously gives the Russian Federation greater opportunities to expand its influence over these countries by playing one of them off against another, and provides yet another opening for those countries which hope to expand their ties to countries beyond the borders of what was the Soviet Union.
The presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, and Tajikistan on Tuesday signed an accord in Astana setting up a Eurasian Economic Community that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said would "probably be like the European Union."
Constructed on the basis of a largely stillborn customs union among these countries, the new organization is to work towards the establishment of common customs, fiscal, monetary, and employment policies. To the extent it does, the new body will represent a realization of the goals of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has pushed for tighter integration among the post-Soviet states.
Nazarbaev has long argued that the creation of a common economic space would benefit all the parties by allowing for an expansion of trade among them. And at the same time, he has suggested that each of them is more likely to cooperate with the others if all have to follow the same rules, arguments that many non-Russian governments have accepted but that Moscow in the past has viewed as restricting its freedom of action.
But commentators in several of the capitals of countries involved have been extremely skeptical as to whether this new Eurasian Community can in fact be any more effective than its predecessors. In addition, they have pointed out that three of the economies involved -- Belarus, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- are currently in such difficulty that broader cooperation may prove impossible.
And today (Wednesday), the presidents of this group of five plus Armenia are scheduled to meet in Bishkek to draw up a five-year regional security plan. These signatories of the CIS Collective Security Agreement are to discuss increasing their military and political integration up to and including the possible formation of regional armed forces.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev on Tuesday provided a clear indication on the specific direction the talks are likely to take. He said the five presidents would discuss Afghanistan and the best way to deter the Taliban from crossing the Tajik frontier, a border now guarded by the 201st Russian Motorized Division and 11,000 Russian and Tajik border guards.
But past efforts at cooperation among these countries have often fallen short of expectations, with one or another leader suggesting that calls for collective security often mask an effort by one or another state to project its power more broadly.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov in particular has made this point in recent weeks, arguing on a variety of occasions that Moscow is pumping up the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in order to force his country and its neighbors to again turn to the Russian Federation for security. Such a shift, Karimov has insisted, would do less to guarantee the security of the Central Asian states than that of Russia itself.
The record of cooperation among these countries in both the economic and security spheres does not inspire confidence in any of the declarations issued in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan this week. Indeed, the remarks reported so far recall many earlier meetings whose declarative language seldom was implemented.
As a result, the more important dimension of these two meetings, one of five post-Soviet states and the other of six, is what they indicate about the future of the CIS now that Vladimir Putin is president of its largest and most important member. That body, which united 12 former Soviet republics and in which so many had placed so many hopes or fears, is made even less relevant by sessions which fail to attract even a majority of its members.
On the one hand, the declining importance of the CIS as an institution effectively frees Moscow's hands to play one of its members or one group of its members off against another in order to regain or expand Russian influence in this region. And on the other hand, this trend appears likely to lead some CIS states, including those in the GUUAM states (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) to adopt an even more independent line.
These two trends could easily put some of these countries on a collision course, one likely to pose new foreign policy challenges not only for them but also for outside powers as well.