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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- How The CIS May End

Washington, 15 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The continued existence of the Commonwealth of Independent States is now threatened both by the leaders of its member countries who think that it is doing too much and by the leaders of those who think it is not doing enough.

Indeed, the only thing these two sides seem to agree on is that Moscow is to blame, either because the Russian government has used the CIS as a cover for its own national agenda or because it has neglected to push the organization forward.

Both views were very much on public display this week as leaders of the 12 former Soviet republics are preparing for a CIS summit in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau next week.

On Monday, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio address that Tbilisi may soon look for other partners if Moscow keeps ignoring Georgia's interests and prerogatives as an independent country.

He said Georgians were increasingly angry by what he said were Moscow's crude Soviet-style approach to Georgia and the other members of the CIS.

And he indicated that unless the Russian government changed its approach to Georgia, he would look for other partners in the West, all of whom have shown greater respect for his country and its interests.

Then on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma took an opposite tack, blaming the organization's failure squarely on Moscow. Kuchma said that Russia had done little or nothing to promote the CIS as an institution.

The Ukrainian president's remarks during his visit to Kazakhstan, whose leader President Nursultan Nazarbayev has regularly urged that the CIS be strengthened and possibly transformed into what he calls a Eurasian Union.

At one level, of course, this debate is nothing more than a continuation of one that has gone on throughout the almost six year history of the CIS. Indeed, the problems now on view reflect the divisions inherent in the organization from the beginning.

Since the creation of the CIS in December 1991, some of its members have viewed the organization as a kind of divorce court, an institution that would allow them to negotiate the division of spoils from the former Soviet Union.

Other countries, in contrast, have hoped that it could serve as the basis either for continued cooperation among the former Soviet republics or even for their reintegration into a single political system.

Neither side has been happy with what has happened, but the reasons for their unhappiness vary widely and often in unexpected ways.

Some of the biggest advocates of the CIS, such as Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev, have wanted a tighter organization not so much in order to go back under Russian domination but rather to escape that possibility by establishing rules Moscow would have to follow.

And some of the biggest opponents of improving the CIS operation, including many in the Russian capital, have opposed developing the CIS in that direction lest it restrict Moscow's freedom of action in dealing with its neighbors.

Thus, while many Russian officials have claimed that the CIS is a regional security organization, they have not been willing to respect fully the rights of non-Russian countries, including Georgia, with respect to the basing of troops and other matters.

But at another level, the arguments now being advanced by Shevardnadze and Kuchma as well as other leaders of CIS member states may have more profound consequences.

On the one hand, they could lead to a new agreement among the current states, one covering fewer issues but covering those in more detail.

And on the other, they could lead to the demise of the institution with one or more of the current members deciding, as Shevardnadze has suggested, that other countries, outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, are far more reliable partners.

Either of these steps would spell the end of the CIS as it has existed up to now.

The first would do so by formalizing something that has been true but largely unrecognized: these 12 countries are increasingly independent and are not interested in a single plan for reintegration sponsored by Moscow.

The second would do so by breaking up an institution many in Moscow and elsewhere have found useful for dealing with the daunting diversity of the region.

At the upcoming meeting in Chisinau, the first of these is by far the more likely outcome. But the second is also possible, and Russian policy may even be promoting it.

In addition to the Russian actions that both Shevardnadze and Kuchma have complained of, Moscow is currently subverting the CIS by forming a variety of bilateral and multilateral relations with CIS member states, thus calling into question the utility of the CIS as such.

As a result, the days of the Commonwealth of Independent States now appear to be numbered. The only question still open is whether it ends with a bang or a whimper.