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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Conform Or Pay

Washington, 5 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a move which could shake the Commonwealth of Independent States to its foundations, Russian Prime Minister Yegeniy Primakov has said that CIS states must follow Moscow's line or promptly pay debts to Russian firms.

Speaking at a Russian Cabinet session on Thursday in advance of a meeting of CIS foreign ministers, Primakov said that Russia was no longer prepared to tolerate such debts especially when those incurring them are flouting Moscow's policies.

"We cannot pile up these debts indefinitely strictly for political reasons," the premier said, "as not all of our debtors are in a political accord with us." And in words some may see as menacing, he noted "only Byelorussia is settling its paying matters with Russia well."

According to ITAR-Tass, Primakov then instructed Russia's CIS Minister Boris Pastukhov to develop a proposal for talks with debtor states and also to consider suspending energy deliveries to those with the worse payment histories.

Using economic power as a lever for political goals is nothing new either internationally or for Russia, but Primakov's latest comments are nonetheless striking:

First, they represent Moscow's most explicit linkage ever between political subservience and economic cooperation since the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States seven years ago.

In remarkably blunt terms, Primakov is stating that the CIS is an organization in which Moscow leads and the others follow rather than the cooperative body Moscow and its supporters in the past have claimed it to be.

And he is also making clear to all of its members that his government is now prepared to accept the possible political costs of adopting a tough line against those countries which do not follow Moscow's line.

Second, Primakov's words reflect a major shift in the balance of power within the Russian government, a shift driven by Moscow's increasingly desperate search for funds.

While post-Soviet Russian governments often have used private and semi-private Russian firms to project power across the CIS, Moscow's policy toward CIS countries in the past generally reflected geopolitical calculations rather than economic ones.

But Primakov's comment Thursday suggests that economic calculations may now be more important both because his government needs the funds and because the Russian firms which had suffered in the past can demand the government help them out.

To the extent that is true, the power of the industrial oligarchs, dismissed by some analysts in recent months, may actually have grown during that period at least relative to the increasingly weak Russian central government.

And third, Primakov's words are remarkable because they appear almost certain to backfire, thus undermining rather than enhancing Russian influence across the post-Soviet region.

On the one hand, Primakov's statement comes at a time whenever more member countries of the CIS are unhappy with that organization. Uzbekistan, for example, indicated this week that it will not agree to participate in any future CIS security accords.

And on the other, the Russian premier's comment occurs when some CIS member states might find it relatively easy to turn to alternative sources given historically low gas prices and thus break out of Moscow's embrace.

By stepping up the pressure in this way, Primakov clearly hopes that some of these states will break and decide that their best option is to defer to Moscow's interests by bringing their policies into line with his.

But by doing so now, the Russian prime minister may be taking an enormous risk. Some of the CIS states appear likely to call his bluff on this point, and others may be at the point of deciding that now is the time to leave that organization behind.

To the extent that some appear likely to make that decision, Primakov may discover that what is most likely to break as a result of his words is the CIS itself -- and with it, the ability of the Russian Federation to use that institution as an instrument for the advancement of its own particular goals.