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USSR Breakup: Ten Years After, Russia Fights For Influence Over CIS States (Part 2)

  • Kathleen Moore

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was originally seen as a surrogate for the Soviet Union. Now, however, it is widely derided as an ineffectual talking shop. Russia's efforts to treat the former Soviet republics as its special sphere of influence have had mixed results. Where, if anywhere, will Russian influence in the CIS remain significant?

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It's been 10 years since Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislau Shushkevich, the head of Minsk's Soviet-era parliament, in a forest villa in Belarus to sign the Soviet Union's death warrant.

The Belovezh Agreement they struck on 8 December 1991 abolished the Soviet Union and established a commonwealth of independent states, initially between their three countries.

Within two weeks, eight more republics -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- agreed to join the group. When Georgia finally signed up and Azerbaijan, after a brief absence, rejoined in 1993, all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states -- which struck out on a pro-Western path of their own -- had returned to the fold.

Ten years on, however, the CIS is credited with accomplishing little beyond helping to prevent the violent disintegration of the Soviet Union -- the so-called "Yugoslav scenario." But the commonwealth did not prevent subsequent civil wars or conflicts among its member countries -- in Tajikistan, Moldova, and Georgia, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The CIS has fallen short of its original promise in other ways as well. At summit after summit, grand plans for greater regional cooperation have been aired -- including one for a free-trade area -- but with few substantive results.

If the CIS has degenerated into a high-level talking shop, the reason for it may be clear: Many of the former republics fear Russia sees the regional grouping as a way to restore its control over them.

Such Russian domination is perfectly acceptable to some -- notably Alyaksandr Lukashenka's Belarus, which has a largely symbolic union treaty with Russia. But it is decidedly not to others' taste. Recently, Ukraine's Kravchuk, now a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, expressed this view:

"If everything remains the same, [the CIS] has no future. The problem is that Russia, before and now, is trying to play a leading role in this body. An international body cannot be efficient if one country wants to be a leader in economic, political, military affairs of the CIS. This would not help boost the authority of this structure because you see inequality. When you have inequality the structure would have no perspectives."

The quarrels over Russian influence were there from the beginning. Azerbaijan accused Russia of siding with Armenia in its conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Georgia accused Russia of supporting separatists in Abkhazia, which gained de facto independence from Tbilisi in 1993 after a short war.

The darker side of Russian influence was articulated in an article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" newspaper, published in early 1997 by two influential policy analysts, who urged Russia to sabotage any individual alliances between the successor states in order to keep them under its influence.

Whether or not the blueprint accurately reflected Russian thought at the time, that same year, four of the CIS republics formed a pro-Western grouping -- GUAM -- comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

This effectively split the CIS into two groups -- a division that was further heightened two years later when Uzbekistan joined GUAM and, along with Georgia and Azerbaijan, pulled out of the CIS's collective security treaty.

Svante Cornell is an expert at Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He says GUAM marked a reversal in the early 1990s trend toward increasing Russian influence in the former Soviet republics.

"The late 90s showed a decrease of Russian influence and actually a splitting of the CIS into what we could call pro-Russian or integrationist, and anti-Russian [groups or] groups that were intent on diminishing the role of the CIS as an organization."

Another regional grouping to emerge -- this time including countries outside the CIS area -- was the Shanghai Five, formed in 1996.

Led by Russia and China, its aim was seen as providing a counterweight to U.S. and European influence in the region. The group included Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- and added Uzbekistan this year, when it became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Cornell says the group's emergence fits into Russia's attempt -- since President Vladimir Putin came to power -- to restore its influence over the republics formerly under Moscow's yoke. For example, he says Putin exploited the threat of Islamic terrorism -- which both Russia and Uzbekistan say they are fighting -- to attract Tashkent back into the fold.

"In the case of Central Asia, I think that was very successful until September 11, because by the summer of 2001, the Shanghai Five had become the Shanghai Six -- in fact, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- and was emerging as perhaps the leading regional forum or regional organization in Central Asia, which was counteracting Western -- especially American -- interests in the region, and also counteracting, by that same token, the factual independence of the Central Asian states. But that, I think, was changed significantly after September 11."

Since the September attacks on the U.S., Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and -- most notably -- Uzbekistan have let foreign forces use their airbases for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan said it would consider granting such a request, if asked, and Turkmenistan has opened its airspace to U.S. planes, but only for humanitarian flights.

Cornell said "September 11 was a breakthrough in that it showed that the Central Asian states -- in cases that, granted, were of an extreme severity, such as deciding whether or not to acquiesce to U.S. demands or requests -- could actually act without, or even against, the wishes of Moscow. And I think that's extremely important to note."

He says 11 September shifted Central Asia's geopolitical landscape and undid efforts to exert Russian-Chinese control over the region. For example, Uzbekistan -- newly empowered by its partnership with the U.S. in the antiterrorism campaign -- did not send representatives to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's first meeting after the attacks.

But the long-term ramifications are still unclear, as it remains to be seen how long the U.S. will maintain a presence in the region. A prolonged stay could antagonize Russia, which is likely to see Central Asia as a sphere of influence for the foreseeable future.

Helge Blakkisrud is head of the Center for Russian Studies at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He says Russian influence is also likely to remain strong in Armenia, which has a military alliance with Moscow. And he notes that there have also been some pro-Russia noises coming from Ukraine recently.

"For instance, from the Ukrainian convention in Moscow it was reported that the Ukrainian deputy prime minister said that Ukraine's way into Europe goes through Moscow. I'm not sure if that's a sign of a new policy or if it just should be interpreted as part of the electoral campaign. But it might mean that Ukraine again is tilting toward the East."

Two recent initiatives within the CIS could result in considerable growth in Russian influence in the economic sphere.

One is the Eurasian Economic Community, comprising Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus. Founded last October, its aim is to promote integration and a single economic space.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the driving force behind the grouping, urged closer ties between CIS members at the group's anniversary summit in Moscow at the end of last month. And he called on the CIS's oil-producing countries to establish an organization similar to OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"I made a proposal to the Russian president. We should set up our oil and gas alliance in the CIS. For example, it is now evident that Kazakhstan and Russia are going to be the main oil exporters in our region. We can [also] ask Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan to join."

Cornell says this idea has potential, depending on what Russia's role in such an organization would be.

"If it would mean granting Russia a similar role to what Saudi Arabia has in OPEC, that means increasing Russian leverage over the oil producing states in the region, [and] I think that [the] other states would not be interested in joining that. But if it could be a true forum for cooperation among the oil-producing countries of the former Soviet Union, which would work for their common interests rather than only supporting or defending or promoting the interests of one dominant country, there are some possibilities to develop that idea."

He says this would fit into a broader change in how Russia attempts to exert its influence over the CIS member states. With its economy in relatively good shape, economic pressure is proving more useful than political means and military threats.