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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Blow To CIS

Washington, 1 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's decision to withdraw from the visa-free regime with other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States may help the Russian government to protect itself against terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.

But it also likely to affect Russia's relationship with other CIS countries, simultaneously offending many while giving Moscow new political leverage over some. In addition, this move seems certain to affect the attitudes of the 11 non-Russian countries toward Russia and Russians and possibly even Moscow's ability to recruit low-income workers from abroad.

Consequently, Russia's use of this tool to defend one part of its national interests may have the effect of undermining other important interests as well.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced on Wednesday that Russia was withdrawing from the 1992 Bishkek accord which established visa-free travel among all but three of the members of the CIS. (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine have remained outside.) He said that terrorism and organized crime meant that Moscow will withdraw from this regime after giving the 90-day notice required by the original agreement.

Some of his aides pointed out that the Bishkek arrangements themselves had already begun to break down, with several of the Central Asian countries already having imposed visa agreements on the nationals of one another.

But the Russian foreign minister himself went out of his way to stress that this decision was not intended to divide the CIS countries: Russia's withdrawal, he said, "does not mean that Russia intends to create artificial barriers and to fence itself off from Commonwealth partners." He added that Russian diplomats will now begin discussions with CIS governments about travel documentation requirements in the future.

Nonetheless, many people across the 12 countries currently part of the CIS are likely to view this Russian decision as the latest blow to the continued existence of an organization that has tried to maintain ties among the 12 Soviet republics since 1991.

After all, despite numerous meetings, the CIS could point to few real achievements beyond the visa-free regime system, an arrangement that allowed some of the countries involved to survive as their workers abroad sent back part of their earnings to their homelands. Russia's decision to withdraw will not only lead others to do the same but call into question whether the CIS has any future at all.

But regardless of whether this Russian decision actually has the effect of ending the CIS, it clearly will have an impact on Moscow's relationship with the other members. On the one hand, it will reduce Russia's ability to present itself to them as the guarantor of CIS arrangements. But on the other, it will almost certainly allow Moscow to step up its pressure on particular countries, demanding concessions as the precise for a more favorable visa regime.

In addition, this decision may prompt many in the non-Russian countries to revise their views of Russia and their treatment of ethnic Russians resident on their territory. They will certainly view this decision as a reflection of Russian, even ethnic Russian national interests, a perception that may lead some of them to become more nationalistic in the defense of their own interests domestically and internationally.

Finally, this decision seems certain to affect Russia itself. Economically, it appears likely to have the effect of depriving certain Russian firms of low-paid guest workers from the former Soviet republics who up to now have provided some of the muscle behind Russia's recent economic gains. Such enterprises will certainly seek special arrangements for "their" workers, thus adding a new element to Russian politics.

And politically, this decision could have the effect of increasing Russian hostility to non-Russians living in the Russian Federation regardless of their citizenship. Not only is it likely to increase demands like those already in place in some Russian cities for the expulsion of "persons from the Caucasus," but it may be seen by some as giving a kind of official green light to Russian nationalist organizations of various stripes.

Moscow's move this week thus may have a very different impact on Russian national security than its authors intend.