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1997 in Review: The CIS -- Half Alive or Half Dead?

Prague, 22 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In early 1997, half a decade after the demise of the USSR, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) appeared to have succeeded in its initial purpose of facilitating a civilized (i.e. non-violent) multiple divorce among the former Soviet republics.

But, it has not evolved into a cohesive supra-national organization with clear-cut objectives and policies shared by most, if not all its members, and effective mechanisms for attaining those goals.

Meeting in Moscow in mid-January, CIS Prime Ministers debated draft guidelines for further economic integration within the Commonwealth. These were to have been modified for adoption at the planned March CIS heads of state summit.

That gathering, however, was overshadowed by the publication two days before its opening of a what appeared to be a draft blueprint by political analysts Andranik Migranian and Konstantin Zatulin. The plan outlined deliberately destabilizing the domestic political situation in selected member states, including Georgia and Ukraine, with the aim of weakening them economically and preventing them from breaking free of Russia's sphere of influence.

This threat of subversion served as a catalyst for the emergence of a broad consensus among CIS presidents in favor of the "soft" approach to closer integration as preferable to the hardline variant.

But even this tentative consensus was not enough to secure adoption of the new Concept for Intergated Economic Development. Several presidents, including Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, made clear their preference for bi- and tri-lateral agreements among CIS member states.

Such agreements, in fact, have formed the basis for alternative alignments within the CIS, including the Russia-Belarus Union (to which some left-wing Armenian political parties advocate accession), between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (focussing on economic and military cooperation) and between Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

The principal common denominators of this latter alignment, dubbed GUAM, are an unequivocally pro-Western orientation and the development of transportation links and a pipeline network for the export of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil, both of which would circumvent Russian territory. The alignment thus poses a threat to Russian hopes of preserving a leading role within the CIS.

The March CIS summit tentatively scheduled a further meeting of heads of state in June, but this was postponed several times, primarily because of Yeltsin's precarious health. Only in late October did CIS presidents and foreign ministers gather in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, for what proved to be an acrimonious barrage of mutual recriminations and predictions of the Commonwealth's imminent demise.

Shevardnadze, Moldova's Petru Lucinschi and Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev pulled no punches in slamming Russia's manipulation of the frozen but still unresolved Abkhaz, Trans-Dniestr and Karabakh disputes. Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma complained that the CIS had ceased to develop.

Moreover, and in an implicit warning that Moscow's domineering approach could sow the seeds of that body's disintegration, Aliyev and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov both argued that the CIS could survive only as "a union of equal parners."

Yeltsin for his part conceded that some of the criticisms levelled at the CIS were justified, but rejected the charge that Russia was solely to blame for the Commonwealth's inability to function as a cohesive whole. Again, participants failed to reach a consensus on specific issues, rejecting the proposed creation of a special commission to address conflicts between CIS states. And only five countries (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Moldova and Kazakhstan) endorsed a new common agricultural policy.

In an attempt to reverse the process of disintegration through inertia, Yeltsin proposed in Chisinau that CIS presidents should meet regularly three times per year, and set January 23, 1998 as the date for the next summit.

In December, he sent a letter to his fellow CIS heads of state, the contents of which have not been made public, outlining proposals for more effective integration within the CIS based on criticisms voiced in Chisinau. What these comprise, and how palatable and effective they are likely to prove, is still unclear.

In late 1996, a briefing document prepared by the German Foreign Ministry asserted that the CIS is based neither on shared values nor shared interests, that its members have neither motivation for integration nor any desire to cede their hard-won sovereignty, and that the only two consolidating factors in evidence are their dependence on Russia and the Russia-centric infrastructure which the CIS inherited from the USSR.

The desire of all CIS states, with the possible exception of Belarus, to buttress their independence is far stronger than any counter-effort by Russia to impose cooperation, the German analysis conclude. That perception is just as valid in late 1997 as it was one year ago.