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CIS: If It's So Ineffectual, Why Do Leaders Keep Meeting?

Leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are holding a summit today in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. They are due to discuss CIS reform, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and other issues. The meeting, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is expected to end with agreements being signed on terrorism, fighting extremist groups, and on curbing illegal migration. But the CIS is widely considered to be ineffectual in its goal of preserving close economic and defense ties between the former Soviet states. So why do the leaders keep meeting?

Prague, 26 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Many observers believe the current summit of CIS leaders will be just as ineffectual as the ones that preceded it.

Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center told RFE/RL that the CIS has clearly failed in its mission of becoming an organization integrating the post-Soviet states. "If we measure the effectiveness in terms of organizing some kind of order in the post-Soviet political and economic space, the importance [of the summits] almost equals zero," he said.

Malashenko said the CIS has failed to hammer out a coordinated foreign policy, while little or no progress has been made in economic cooperation and other spheres.

The CIS was founded in December 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only the three Baltic states did not join.

Malashenko said it is difficult to guess how the organization -- which serves as a venue for personal contacts and consultations between the heads of state -- will develop in the future. "I think it will become clear what will happen with this organization during this summit or in two more summits in the future," Malashenko said. "We will see if [the CIS] disappears completely or becomes some kind of a presidential club." He added that CIS summits at least afford leaders an opportunity to reduce tensions and to consult without having to make commitments.

CIS leaders themselves offer a more upbeat analysis, at least in public. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told journalists in Kazan today that the CIS "should be preserved as an organization...for the sake of economic integration and the improvement of living standards of our people."

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko promised to bring proposals to Kazan on how to improve cooperation between Ukraine and the other CIS states. Yushchenko said Ukraine will put up for discussion several issues, including a mechanism for a free-trade zone within the CIS.

However, Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said reviving the CIS isn't a priority for Ukraine. "I think [the Ukrainians] are very conscious about making it appear that they are keeping all avenues of possible links with Russia open and that they are open for discussion on any issues," Hensel said. "I think their line throughout all of this is going to be that any sort of integration that happens through the CIS or through the Single Economic Space, that this happens in ways that are in Ukraine's interest. And I don't think they are going to back off of that in any way."

Hensel said it is in Ukraine's interest to create a real free-trade area instead of a trading system dominated by Russia. Since Russia opposes the idea, this conflict of interest "will stop further integration from happening."

Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are the staunchest critics of the way the CIS has been functioning, but both nevertheless continue to attend the summits. Malashenko says it easy to understand why. "Both Yushchenko and Saakashvili clearly understand that moving closer to Europe is not a sudden jump," he said. "It is a very long process, a very long one. In fact, it will take a whole generation to make it. It is not solid to ignore the CIS completely. And to pretend that they have nothing to do with it would be childish."

Both Georgia and Ukraine have made membership in the European Union and NATO priorities. Yushchenko and Saakashvili met in Georgia two weeks ago and discussed setting up a new regional alliance to champion democracy in the former Soviet space.

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