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The East: Analysis From Washington--Looking Beyond The CIS

Washington, 21 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov have added their voices to those who believe that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is ineffective and should be replaced.

Following a meeting in Almaty on Wednesday, Luzhkov called the CIS "a nostalgic stage prop" while Nazarbayev argued that the organization had "failed to become a real economic zone or even customs union."

In its place, the two leaders called for the establishment of a new Eurasian Union, a body that they said would promote cooperation and coordination among the 12 former Soviet republics that are currently grouped within the CIS.

Nazarbayev has been pushing this idea since 1993, and Luzhkov's support for it highlights just how dissatisfied many in the region are with the current arrangements. But despite this latest burst of enthusaism for a Eurasian Union, there are three reasons why is is unlikely to be realized. Indeed, instead of leading to a new organization, this proposal seems more likely to complete the destruction of the existing one.

First, most Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down oppose Nazarbayev's suggestion just as much now as they have in the past.

Their objections are rooted in the following fact: A Eurasian Union as outlined by the Kazakhstan president would precisely define the rules of the game for all the countries of the region and thus tie the hands of the largest and most powerful CIS country, Russia.

Indeed, any number of Russian commentators have suggested that Nazarbayev's intention in making this proposal was to limit Moscow's freedom of action.

Whether that is a fair comment is in some sense irrelevant. To the extent that many in Moscow believe it, few in the Russian capital are likely to support an idea that they see as working against their interests.

Second, one of the chief reasons that the CIS is so ineffective is that few of its member states now see much benefit in trying to cooperate with this particular collection of states as a whole.

They are unlikely to view a proposal for tighter integration as corresponding to their interests now or even more in the future.

With each year that has passed since the end of the Soviet Union, each of the CIS states has increasingly sought to promote its own national interests, using bilateral and multilateral ties within and across the borders of the former Soviet space.

Ever fewer of them participate in CIS-wide agreements and ever fewer of them fulfill the terms of CIS accords that they signed earlier.

As a result, these countries see ever less utility in an organization which Luzhkov so precisely described as "a stage prop" for a play that is no longer going on.

And third, this latest proposal, just like the various sub-groupings that have surfaced across the territory of the CIS in recent months, is a sign of the Commonwealth's decay rather than its vitality.

Not only could Nazarbayev's ideas never hope to attract the support of all 12 CIS member states, but their acceptance by a smaller grouping within would only have the effect of driving those staying outside it still farther apart.

Moreover, Nazarbayev's proposal represents a direct challenge to Yeltsin's own efforts to promote integration with Belarus. And as a result, the proposal for a Eurasian Union may have the effect of blocking that drive as well.

Consequently, Luzhkov's backing for this idea is unlikely to represent a breakthrough to a new and more perfect union as the Moscow mayor appears to think.

Instead, it is likely to open the way to a situation in which the CIS will be discarded as no longer necessary and the Eurasian Union will be seen by the states of the region as something not corresponding to their interests as independent countries.