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CIS: Informal Summit Unlikely To Bring Breakthroughs

An informal two-day summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States begins today in Ukraine. The presidents of eight of the 12 member states will be in attendance, while four Central Asian states are sending other state officials. Participants are expected to hold a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings, but as RFE/RL reports, no major policy talks are expected.

Prague, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are many issues of concern among the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): border control, minority rights, and economic cooperation being just three of them.

But is the CIS, a decade-old alliance of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, really the best forum for solving these mainly bilateral issues? Many analysts say no.

Since its creation in December 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIS has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promise to foster continued cooperation between former Soviet republics Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, which joined only in 1993.

Andrei Ryabov is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He told RFE/RL that no serious decisions are likely to be made at this week's summit in Ukraine. "I think these [CIS] summits -- like all summits of this nature -- long ago became [routine] meetings of an elite club of leaders of post-Soviet countries. The personal relations that exist among the leaders help to create the appearance that this organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, is effective. But in the more than 10 years of its existence, the CIS has not managed to produce any serious economic or social projects like those that exist among the European states or other regional economic organizations," Ryabov said.

Ryabov said the CIS is still, in essence, a communist-era organization based on common ties among the former Soviet officials now heading the independent states. "Of course, looking at it from a historic perspective, an organization like this has no serious future. It is clear that the present post-Soviet political elite, the elite that came from the [upper ranks] of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, will soon be replaced by other political forces with a different orientation. And the CIS will have less and less significance for [these new politicians]," Ryabov said.

However, Ryabov said, there are still areas where the CIS summit can make advances, most notably, in bolstering Russian-Georgian relations. Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi, never strong in the post-Soviet period, have soured further over the past year amid Russian allegations that Georgia is sheltering Chechen militants in its Pankisi Gorge region.

Tbilisi has repeatedly refused to open Pankisi to patrols by Russian troops. Moscow, in return, has accused Tbilisi of failing to comply with United Nations antiterrorism requirements and clear the region of militants on its own.

Scheduled talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze may help ease tensions on the issue of Pankisi, but the equally thorny issue of Abkhazia, which is also due to be discussed, is likely to see no progress.

Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia won de facto independence from Tbilisi following a 1992-93 war. A Russian-led peacekeeping force, operating under the auspices of the CIS, has patrolled the border of the UN-monitored region since 1994. Hostilities mounted further this month after Shevardnadze criticized Russia for opening a railway link with the region without consulting the Georgian government.

Ryabov said the summit, which is expected also to focus on the transit of oil and gas through CIS countries, is likely to conclude with what he called "nice political declarations" and the adoption of several "unexpected documents." But he added that there will be little in the way of substantive decision making regarding the serious border and economic issues affecting CIS countries.

Dmitrii Orlov of the Center of Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank, said the main problems among CIS states are usually solved through bilateral agreements, not in unofficial CIS meetings. "I think reality supports my statement. There have been no serious recent breakthroughs, no serious agreements [made during CIS meetings]. Any agreements are usually reached during bilateral negotiations, during informal bilateral meetings. Such big summits usually have a more ceremonial character. The discussion tends to be on global problems, such as the war on terrorism," Orlov said.

Orlov said the fact that four out of the five Central Asian leaders chose to forgo the meeting -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who chose to travel to Spain rather than attend the summit -- indicates the CIS alliance is continuing to lose its importance. "From the moment it was created to this day, the [CIS] is losing its efficiency, losing [the interest of] its members. It is hard for me to tell if this tendency will continue. I cannot exclude the possibility that Russia's geopolitical situation will change and that it will gain more influence over its neighbors. But now we are really observing negative tendencies," Orlov said.

Nazarbaev, speaking ahead of the summit, and apparently ahead of his decision not to attend, said that: "At the end of the day, we must understand what we all need and what is rewarding to all. We all stand to gain from integration, especially in the economic field, from opening borders and allowing people, goods, and capital to move freely."

Such sentiments, according to Ryabov, are often repeated by CIS leaders but rarely acted upon.