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Uzbekistan: Analysis From Washington -- When Agreements Destroy Agreements

Washington, 29 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov's call for giving priority to bilateral agreements between former Soviet republics is the latest blow to the multilateral arrangements enshrined by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Speaking in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek on Wednesday, Karimov said that relations among CIS countries should be reviewed and should develop now primarily on a bilateral basis "because it is much easier to exercise control over the implementation of bilateral accords." He said that analysis had shown that, despite declarations of cooperation, few CIS agreements actually worked in practice.

Karimov immediately tempered what some might view as a radical rejection of the CIS by suggesting that all of the countries in that organization should first conclude bilateral accords with Moscow and then model these agreements on a multilateral basis," a comment that suggests he is not prepared to lead his country out of that post-Soviet organization just yet.

But his proposal appears to reflect a growing body of opinion in many of the member states. On the same day that Karimov was making his declaration, Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" newspaper, a outlet that frequently floats trial balloons for the Russian authorities, published a collection of articles about the CIS under the rubric "An Alliance Quietly Dying."

One of these articles suggests that the CIS is passing from the scene because its real content had not lived up to its declarative policies. Instead, after almost a decade of existence, the article said, the CIS still lacks common political and economic structures, a common visa-free regime, and significant agreements on military cooperation.

Neither Karimov's remarks nor articles such as these are likely to prove to be the death knell of the CIS. But any move away from that multilateral body toward bilateral ties by definition reduces the importance of the CIS. It raises questions about its role as a regional security organization. And it thus opens the way to a much more complicated set of power relationships among these countries than currently exists.

On the one hand, it will almost certainly give the larger and more powerful countries such as Russia across the entire region and Uzbekistan within Central Asia greater leverage over each of their neighbors because they will now have more opportunities to play one off against the other rather than have to take multilateral concerns into account.

After announcing earlier this month its intention of withdrawing from the CIS-wide visa regime, the Russian government has shown that it will use its ability to issue or withhold visas to try to reward those of its neighbors who cooperate with Moscow and to punish those who defy it.

And Uzbekistan's Karimov was in Bishkek for the express purpose of reaching agreement with Kyrgyzstan on expanding cooperation in the defense sphere. Such an accord not only increases Uzbek influence there but also helps to reduce the influence of other capitals in a country on Uzbekistan's borders.

But on the other hand, this shift to bilateral ties will call into question Russian insistence that the CIS should be recognized as a regional security organization. Moreover, it may prompt some countries there to try escape from the influence of their larger neighbors either by forming new alliances like the GUUAM countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) or by expanding bilateral ties with states beyond the former Soviet Union.

With the decline of the CIS, Moscow appears likely to face ever more questions about its peacekeeping activities in neighboring countries. Under normal international rules, there are strict limits on the role of the militaries of neighboring states in peacekeeping activities. The Russian government has escaped these by asserting that it is involved in a regional security body. Now Moscow will find it more difficult to sustain that claim.

And many of the non-Russian countries appear likely to join or expand groups like GUUAM or seek expanded ties with outside countries as the best means of defending their individual national interests against the reassertion of Russian power.

The algebra of this new international politics has so many unknowns that no one can be sure yet just how power relations among the countries in this part of the world will develop. But the ever smaller role of the CIS makes it likely that future shifts will be both more transparent and more diverse than has been the case in the decade since the demise of the Soviet Union led to the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.