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Analysis: Terrorism, Common Ground, And The CIS Summit

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has always been an organization of countries united more by the shared burden of an ambiguous past than by a common vision of the future.

Since it arose on the ruins of the Soviet Union to bring together 12 newly independent states (all of the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states), the CIS has struggled both to define a clear mission for itself and fashion effective mechanisms to implement the decisions it makes. With Russia now embarking on a war on terror, the 16 September summit of CIS leaders in Astana, Kazakhstan, took place in a changed climate. But as new concerns spring to the fore and old problems continue to bedevil the CIS, member states are increasingly looking elsewhere for solutions.

Ruslan Grinberg, director of the Institute of International Economic and Political Research, wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 16 September that "the CIS was never an integrationist group as the phrase is commonly understood. By the logic of the Belovezh [Agreement, which abolished the Soviet Union] was necessary to create as quickly as possible in place of the dissolved USSR some kind of a liquidation committee to carry out the divorce proceedings in a more or less manageable fashion. For all its flaws, the CIS coped with this task."

The organization's subsequent legacy has been less than inspiring. Uzbek President Islam Karimov indulged his penchant for bluntness and expressed a widely shared frustration with the CIS in the lead-up to the most recent summit. Speaking to Uzbek TV in Tashkent on 15 September before his departure for Astana, Karimov said: "CIS summits are held regularly, as if they are actually doing something. But do they have any impact? I think this is a natural question." Karimov gave his own response in the form of a chuckle. He summed up, "We pinned great hopes on the CIS. Unfortunately, its activity over the past 13 years has not met our expectations."
"CIS summits are held regularly, as if they are actually doing something. But do they have any impact?" -- Uzbek President Karimov

But the 16 September summit, which brought together all of the CIS leaders except Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, collided with events that precluded the pretence of business as usual. Russia, which remains the dominant force in the CIS, suffered a string of terrorist attacks in late August and early September culminating in the horrific bloodbath at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. Against this tragic backdrop, terrorism suddenly loomed as the summit's inevitable overarching theme.

As expected, the struggle against terrorism dominated the summit's public statements and agreements. No breakthroughs were forthcoming, although the summit participants signed documents intended to combat illegal migration, organized crime, and drug trafficking. As "Gazeta" noted, the agreements all fit under the general rubric of fighting terrorism through heightened attention to movements of people and money (although the increased surveillance, if implemented, could well hinder the CIS's long-stated goal of achieving greater integration among member states).

More importantly, the concept of a war on terror set the tone for the summit. A joint statement after the summit read, "The terrorists who have committed crimes against the Russian Federation present an extremely serious danger to all countries of the world without exception. The heads of the CIS member states express their full solidarity with the Russian Federation in its battle against terrorism."

Although this general consensus did not give rise to a welter of concrete initiatives, two noteworthy statements came from leaders in Central Asia, where terrorism has long been a hot-button issue and the official interpretation of the terrorist threat is closest to that voiced by Russian officials of late -- a worldwide jihad fomented by Islamic extremists. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev told the post-summit news conference that "I am a decisive supporter of a strategy of preemptive strikes," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The comment echoed earlier remarks by Russian General Yurii Baluevskii and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov that Russia is prepared, if necessary, to undertake preemptive strikes against terrorist bases anywhere in the world they are located. For his part, Uzbek President Karimov suggested the creation of a CIS-wide list of terrorist organizations and individuals, Interfax reported.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle was one initiative that would normally have led news reports from the summit. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev used his position as host to unveil a sweeping plan to reform the CIS by abolishing a number of ineffective existing bodies and concentrating work around a new Security Council. But with the summit's primary focus elsewhere, the only reaction to Nazarbaev's proposals was a commitment to have foreign ministers examine them before next year's summit in Minsk, Belarus.

The underlying tensions of the CIS peeked out from behind the overall antiterrorism agenda at a contentious post-summit news conference. With journalists' questions concerned mainly with unresolved conflicts along the CIS's western flank, from the Caucasus to Transdniester, the session devolved into what "Izvestiya" described as "a competition of barbed remarks, rather polite and decorous, but still representative of competing claims." The public dialogue so unnerved Karimov that he chided his colleagues, in a probable reference to outspoken Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, for engaging in "self-promotion."

But if the CIS remains hamstrung by an inefficient structure, the immense difficulty of coordinating decision making among 12 squabble-prone independent states, and a lack of effective mechanisms for ensuring that decisions are carried out, the concerns aired at the CIS summit could well lead to actions outside the organization's framework. Precedents exist. For example, the oft-noted need for CIS economic integration has found concrete expression in the Single Economic Space (SES) that Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine are trying to establish. At a 15 September meeting on the eve of the CIS leaders' summit, SES presidents took several steps to move the project along.

When Kyrgyz President Akaev voiced support for preemptive strikes, he put it in the context of a non-CIS organization. Akaev said that he based his support on "the lessons learned from the fight against armed groups of militants in Kyrgyzstan in 1999-2000," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He continued: "But then there was no mechanism to bring into play the high-precision weapons that are needed for preemptive strikes. At present, there is such a mechanism -- the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its rapid-reaction forces in Central Asia." The CSTO member states are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia, some combination of which may likely be willing to take concrete steps to increase antiterrorism cooperation.
"It is important for us that there be no 'double standards.' One doesn't see this within the CIS." -- Russian President Putin

Still, Akaev's remarks drew a sour response from Uzbek President Karimov, who called Akaev's faith in military solutions "superficial," "Vremya novostei" reported. Karimov concluded grimly, "Terrorism today is an all-encompassing ill, a creeping force. If it could be liquidated with missiles, it would be a simple problem to solve. But no one has yet found a solution to the problem of suicide bombers," Interfax reported.

The clearest indication of where common ground may lie came in a comment by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the post-summit press conference. Putin defined terrorists as "criminals who hide behind political, religious, and nationalistic slogans while they try to accomplish things that have nothing to do with what they proclaim publicly," Vesti reported. He also noted, "It is important for us that there be no 'double standards.' One doesn't see this within the CIS," RIA-Novosti reported.

"Double standards" are, of course, a staple of debates over terrorism. Central Asian governments often see double standards in the West's refusal to accept their definitions of religious extremism and the resultant Western criticism of human rights violations in the course of their efforts to combat extremism. This, it seems, is how President Putin used the phrase -- as an implicit criticism of those who disagree with his definition of terrorism. And while he may be exaggerating the extent of agreement throughout the entire CIS, there is considerable affection for this usage of "double standards" among some member states, particularly in Central Asia.

The threat of terrorism is unlikely to revive the CIS. But it may well lead to closer cooperation between Russia and the CIS member states with which it now finds it has both the common cause of fighting terrorism and the common complaint that its definition or terrorism is not universally shared.