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What If The CIS Holds A Summit, And No One Comes?

  • Robert Coalson

Low turnout: a billboard welcoming CIS leaders to Chisinau.

Low turnout: a billboard welcoming CIS leaders to Chisinau.

There is none of the extraordinary street-cleaning or painting of dingy facades going on in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, that one might expect as the city prepares to host a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have already sent their regrets, and those countries will be represented by lower-level delegations.

On the eve of the October 8 start of the summit, it remained unclear whether Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko would put in an appearance. If he does, it will be the first time he has encountered Russian President Dmitry Medvedev since August, when Medvedev issued an angry open letter accusing Kyiv of pursuing "anti-Russian policies."

Georgia will be noticeably absent from the first CIS gathering since Tbilisi formalized its withdrawal from the bloc in August.

Freshly minted Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that the bloc is of fading relevance.

"We know that this structure [the CIS] is not viable, that it must be changed," Filat said. "But at least it gives the possibility to discuss topics of interest."

On The Sidelines

The CIS -- which comprises Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan -- has lurched from summit to summit almost since its inception, seeking to define commonalities among countries that mostly share a history of domination by Moscow.

The official agenda of the summit includes some 20 draft projects on economic, humanitarian, and security cooperation, as well as another round of the endless discussion of how to improve the organization itself.

But, as usual, attention is focused on what may or may not happen on the sidelines of the gathering.

For example, will Yushchenko show up?

On the one hand, after Medvedev wrote in his August missive that he sees no prospects for "normal relations under the current leaders" of Ukraine, Yushchenko has every reason to snub the summit.

On the other hand, Filat told RFE/RL that Moldova would like to join forces with Kyiv in pursuing further Euro-Atlantic integration for both countries, and Yushchenko might well want to show support for the new West-leaning government in Chisinau.

Oleksandr Chaly, a former Ukrainian deputy foreign minister and a former deputy chief of staff to Yushchenko, says he sees the opportunity to forge an alliance with Moldova as crucial for Ukraine.

"Yushchenko's visit to Chisinau is very important because the government there has just changed -- there is a new team," Chaly says. "Moldova and its integrity remain key strategic goals for Ukrainian foreign policy. This is why Yushchenko's visit is so important for the development of Ukraine's diplomacy. I would say it is more important than a potential bilateral meeting with Medvedev."

More Disappointment

The Central Asian no-shows are an unsettling sign for the CIS. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have never ratified the CIS treaty and regularly fail to show up for the bloc's summits.

But the absences of the Tajik and Turkmen presidents seem to point to tense relations with Moscow on issues from energy, to payments for a Russian military base in Tajikistan, to the possibility that Russia will introduce visa requirements for Central Asians.

Arguably most troubling of all is the absence of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is perhaps the biggest booster of the CIS after Russia. His decision not to attend came as a complete surprise in Astana and his office offered no explanation for the move.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to hold direct talks during the Chisinau gathering. The potential for improved relations between the two countries is bolstered by warming relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan's strategic ally, Turkey.

The summit will also be overshadowed by the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has recognized as independent countries. None of the other CIS countries has followed Moscow's lead on this, despite pressure from the Kremlin.

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh told Russia's "Vremya novostei" that he has been negotiating with some CIS countries regarding recognition and expressed the hope that Belarus, at least, will do so in the near future.

RFE/RL's Moldovan and Ukrainian services contributed to this report
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to