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CIS: What Does Kuchma's New Post Say About The Alliance?

  • Askold Krushelnycky

This week's Commonwealth of Independent States summit in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, saw the country's president emerge as the head of the organization. RFE/RL examines what the appointment means for both Ukraine and the CIS.

Prague, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Since its creation in 1991, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), comprising 12 former Soviet republics, has proven to be an ineffective organization that has failed to exert any significant economic or diplomatic clout.

Its own members tend to ignore the grand-sounding resolutions it passes, and four heads of member states did not even bother to attend the two-day summit in Kyiv that ended yesterday.

Russia is the organization's dominant member, and it is only through Russia's patronage that the CIS has managed to survive this long. All the body's previous heads had been from Russia, until now. Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin nominated his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma as chairman of the Council of CIS Heads of State.

Putin said: "On Russia's initiative, Kuchma has been appointed head of the CIS unanimously. Ukraine is the biggest country after Russia in the commonwealth. It is a country of almost 50 million people. It is second in economic scale to Russia, and its weight and significance in the CIS is very great. It seems to me a natural choice."

Many member states view the CIS with suspicion, seeing in it a Russian attempt to reassert authority on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine itself has always kept the organization at a distance, preferring an observer status, and its parliament has never ratified the statutes required for full membership.

That did not stop Putin from installing Kuchma as CIS chief without consulting other leaders, a move unlikely to allay their skepticism about the organization.

Kuchma, though, said the appointment of a non-Russian should lay to rest fears that Russia covets a new empire. "If in Ukraine people still sometimes talk about Russia's ambitions for empire, I'd like that talk to cease now. Well, at least that's what I'd like," Kuchma said.

Kuchma, increasingly shunned by the West because of a series of scandals, has recently tried to warm relations with Russia. Kuchma is accused of corruption, involvement in a politically motivated killing, cracking down on freedom of speech, and selling a sophisticated radar system to Iraq. At home, he has faced sporadic opposition demonstrations calling for his resignation before his term of office expires next year.

Analysts say Putin views Kuchma's troubles as an opportunity to improve what have been often tense relations with Ukraine, which has been perceived in Moscow as drifting too far away from Russia's orbit.

The appointment of Kuchma as CIS chief -- a role he is known to have sought, perhaps in an effort to boost his ailing reputation -- is unlikely to raise the organization's prestige. Nevertheless, it is a welcome symbol of support for Kuchma and could also benefit Ukraine itself.

An adviser to Kuchma's presidential administration, political analyst Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy, believes Kuchma's new role could yield real benefits for Kyiv. He said Ukraine must exploit opportunities that exist in CIS markets in cooperation with Russia to help overcome Ukraine's immense economic problems, which have impoverished much of its population.

He said Ukraine has plans to develop the CIS and that its priority is to create a free-trade zone within the body to stimulate trade by transporting goods without the penalty of large tariffs. "Ukraine is very interested that the question of a free-trade zone is resolved as quickly as possible and with the smallest number of exclusions from the list of goods in this trade zone. If this happens, it will be Ukraine that gains most," Pohrebynskyy said.

He said that if Ukraine's concept of CIS development is adopted, not only will Ukrainians benefit, but it could inspire new confidence in the organization by other members disappointed at its record of inefficiency.

Other political analysts believe the CIS is incapable of transforming itself into an organization that could dramatically improve the economies of its member states and that it is doomed to becoming ever more irrelevant. That is the view of Ukraine's former UN ambassador, Serhiy Komisarenko, now head of the Ukrainian International Institute for Peace and Democracy, a think tank. "Despite the large number of CIS meetings, they have not had any real, concrete results. Yes, it's a meeting of heads of state or governments who hold talks about how to improve travel between their two countries and some economic matters. But in the end, we have never felt any consequences [of these meetings] in our countries," Komisarenko said.

The research director of the independent Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy, Oleksandr Mosiyiuk, also doubts that Ukraine will gain much from Kuchma's new role. "The first opinion is that of President Kuchma's supporters, who say his election was a great success for him personally and also for Ukrainian diplomacy. Another opinion is the one voiced by some members of the political opposition and is somewhat apocalyptic. They believe that by this election Ukraine has lost its opportunity for [Western] European integration and movement toward the West. I think the reality is somewhere in between," Mosiyiuk said.

He believes that Kuchma's appointment will lead to few, if any, real changes. Mosiyiuk said the summit demonstrated that Putin is the strongest force within the CIS and can manipulate it as he wishes, demonstrated by the appointment of Kuchma as CIS chief despite the fact Ukraine is not a full member, a fact that he said calls into question the very legality of the appointment.

He said Kuchma's titular leadership of the CIS is unlikely to bring Ukraine any real benefits because the free-trade zone that Ukraine craves would mean a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia's state budget, a development he doubts Moscow would agree to. He said Russian businessmen and politicians have already expressed opposition to the type of free-trade agreement Ukraine wants and will use the CIS to pursue policies beneficial to Russian business. "Russia has important strategic interests here as concerns the flow of Russian capital into Ukraine and to halt Ukraine's movement toward [Western] Europe," Mosiyiuk said.

Some of Kuchma's critics have said that he sought the post of CIS chief in order to maintain a role after his presidency finishes and to secure protection against the legal investigations his political opponents want to launch when his immunity from prosecution ends. Pohrebynskyy called that scenario into question, however. "It's very difficult for me to imagine because for the moment it's a nonpermanent post. If the president leaves his post as president [of Ukraine], it's difficult to envisage that he will remain head of the CIS," Pohrebynskyy said.

Mosiyiuk said that, although Kuchma's appointment might improve his image in the eyes of some "politically unsophisticated" Ukrainians, having as its head someone of Kuchma's reputation is unlikely to bolster the international image of the CIS, which is already viewed as of little importance by most Western leaders.

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