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Where Does Russia Want To Take The CIS?

  • Irina Severin

Russia in the lead -- but where?

Russia in the lead -- but where?

The main intrigue surrounding the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Chisinau last week was whether Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would attend.

The Kremlin only confirmed his participation in the October 9 event on October 5. The delay only intensified speculation that even the Kremlin has come to the conclusion that the CIS is a still-born organization.

The very existence of the CIS is a major part of Russia's pretence that it is a superpower locked in competition with the United States. But is Russia really leading the bloc? And, if so, where?

Observers were also speculating intensely about the summit's agenda. Initial press statements indicated the leaders would discuss measures for coping with the economic crisis. But the Russian Foreign Ministry's October 5 statement ignored this topic and listed only routine issues including "border-security cooperation, migration policy, and the humanitarian sphere."

'Great Patriotic War'

As it turned out, the main objective of the summit was pronounced the signing of a document obliging all CIS heads of state to participate in an informal summit in May 2010 to mark the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II and proclaiming 2010 to be "the year of CIS veterans of the Great Patriotic War" with the slogan "We Won Together."

It is worth noting that the CIS had previously planned to declare 2010 "the year of science and innovation in the CIS," but Russia pushed hard for looking backward rather than ahead by focusing on the war.

In combination with Moscow's active revival of the cult of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, it would appear that Russia is pushing Soviet nostalgia/patriotism as a quasi-official ideology for the CIS, perhaps in a bid to save the floundering organization. CIS Executive Secretary Aleksandr Lebedev announced the war-anniversary commemorations would take place throughout the bloc in April and May 2010 and that all CIS countries would have to contribute to financing them.

Of course, this approach is highly controversial, since some parts of the CIS perceive the postwar period as an occupation of their lands by the Soviet Union and a national tragedy. Moscow's efforts to impose a Russian-centered view of recent history on Russia's neighbors is widely viewed as a brutal affront.

Moldova, which holds the organization's rotating presidency this year, fought hard to at least change the wording "Great Patriotic War" to "World War II," but failed -- under intense Russian diplomatic pressure. The final resolution raised eyebrows in Chisinau, but the new Moldovan government evidently opted to focus on fulfilling the obligations made by the previous government and on serving as a good host for the summit.

But the Russian side surely noticed that acting Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu, who participated in the general talks and the "narrow-format" meeting, did not sign the final documents. He delegated this "honorable obligation" to a deputy prime minister.

Russia Throws Its Weight Around

For his part, Medvedev seemed pleased with his victory, noting wryly, "Not everybody was satisfied with some of the wording, but that's life...."

Also on October 5, Russia paved the way for the summit -- which originally was supposed to be an anticrisis summit -- with some tough announcements for Belarus and Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told RIA Novosti that Belarus will not get the last, $500 million tranche of a $2 billion loan and that Ukraine would not be given the $5 billion credit that Kyiv had been seeking.

During the narrow-format talks, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka were adamant in their efforts to redirect the discussion to the anticrisis measures. They complained that trade barriers with Russia were increasing rather than easing.

Russia deflected this talk and instead offered CIS members access to a new $7.5 billion Eurasian Economic Community fund (of which, Russia contributed $5 billion). Kudrin also said that Moscow supports conducting business with CIS countries in "national currencies," which was seen as a bid to install the Russian ruble as a regional currency and to push out the dollar. Doing so would increase the dependence of CIS countries on Moscow considerably.

The unanswered questions from the Chisinau summit are: Why does Moscow hold onto the past and its dubious old symbols with an apparent death grip? Is it because the Kremlin lacks a palatable vision for the future or even that it lacks confidence in its ability to really lead the CIS forward?

And is this lack of vision a result of Russia's undemocratic, closed political system? Unable to serve as an attractive example, is Moscow forced to adopt a pushy, even bullying, posture? Does it lack the confidence to take the views of other CIS members into account?

These questions are hanging in the air as Moldova has handed over the CIS presidency to Moscow for 2010 -- "the year of CIS veterans of the Great Patriotic War." The next official CIS summit will be held in Moscow in December 2010.

Irina Severin is a political analyst and journalist based in Chisinau. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL