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Russia: Putin Could Increase Economic Pressure On CIS Countries

The election of Russian acting President Vladimir Putin to lead the council of the Commonwealth of Independent States this week could herald the beginning of a new Russian policy toward the organization. Analysts say Putin may be more active than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in throwing Russia's weight around the CIS.

Moscow, 26 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- By electing Vladimir Putin as president of the Council of CIS Heads of State, the leaders of the former Soviet republics seem to have bowed to the reality of their economic dependence on Russia.

The leadership of the council is supposed to rotate among the CIS heads of state according to the Cyrillic alphabet. This year, Tajikistan was supposed to replace Russia as head of the council.

But Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov gave up his turn in favor of Putin, saying that Russia plays what he called a "key role" in the organization.

Leadership of the CIS council has been seen as only a formality. The organization has had little power or cohesion, and Moscow has appeared powerless to alter the policies of certain member states -- notably Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine -- which it sees as contrary to its regional interests.

But some analysts say that Putin could try to revive the Russian power in the organization -- provided he is elected president of Russia in March.

The influential daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" ran a front-page article on Tuesday arguing that Russia should separate friendship and business when dealing with its former Soviet neighbors. The paper said that Russia's economic levers are strong enough for it to defend its interests against what it called "forgetful" partners.

Anatoly Savateev is a specialist on CIS issues with the Russian Center for Civilizations and Regional Studies. He told RFE/RL that Russia's previous leadership in the organization depended on the personal relationships of Boris Yeltsin, and was constrained by his backslapping intimacy with other CIS leaders. Yeltsin's departure, Savateev says, could make the CIS a more effective organization.

"[With Putin], a new politician has appeared on the arena. A politician who is not tied by former obligations, who isn't held by those ties that held Boris Yeltsin. That's why [Putin] will be considerably more uninhibited when making decisions. And therefore, as far as I can judge, his policy towards CIS countries will be significantly different from Yeltsin's. Yeltsin led an emotional and quite impulsive policy, where he would show interest for the CIS [only] once in a while. I think this will change in favor of quite a pragmatic Russian policy towards the CIS, both in the economic and the political field."

The CIS is widely seen as an ineffective successor to the Soviet Union. It was born in December 1991 as a transitional forum for regional cooperation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Russia, with its dominant economic and political position, consistently sacrificed multilateral CIS relations to its own bilateral goals. Through the CIS, Russia has been intent on maintaining influence in what it considers its traditional zone of interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Under Putin, this policy could be pursued more strongly.

Russia's economic leverage in the CIS is strong, and it has demonstrated that it will use its power to pressure its neighbors. NATO-friendly Ukraine is being urged to pay its debt to Moscow of $2.2 billion, while the more neutral Kazakhstan got some of its debts written off. Such economic pressure could be applied widely in the CIS -- Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Armenia are all seeking to restructure their growing energy debts.

Savateev says that Putin may be spurred to a stronger policy because of the increasing tendency of CIS states to create foreign policies that are oriented toward the West rather than toward Russia.

"Putin is also being pushed to this [change in policy] of course by interior factors but also by the whole complex of international relations, both economic and political. Of course, the attempt of some CIS states to lead at the same time a policy where they get for a relatively low price energy resources and at the same time try to distance themselves from Russia on the political level by orienting themselves on other states will, I think, be answered in Russia's new policy."

Savateev says that this policy may lead to bargains in which Russia trades economic help in exchange for diplomatic loyalty.