There were plenty of good reasons to organize an informal top-level meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Moscow last weekend. Old conflicts and new tensions dividing its 12 member-states, from the deadlocked antagonism between Armenia and Azerbaijan to the ongoing spy scandal between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, require the urgent attention of their leaders and good-neighborly mediation between the parties. The broad theme of “energy security” needs to be collectively elaborated by producers and consumers in order to harmonize their interests and prevent new “gas wars.” Yet none of these real issues was actually put on the agenda of the summit, which started with a long dinner at a restaurant on the shore of Moscow River on Friday evening and ended with horse racing on Saturday afternoon (Izvestiya, July 24).
When inviting his “junior allies” to spend some quality time together, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not have in mind discussing conflict management or gas prices; his main topic was the success he had achieved at the G-8 summit the previous weekend. He had played host to the leaders of the most influential countries in the world and not only provided an excellent venue but proved his status as a rightful member of the most elitist of political clubs, brushing aside questions about the quality of democracy in Russia (Kreml.org, July 20; Moskovskie novosti, July 21). By all accounts, Putin scored a big victory and was eager to translate that result into a more usable position of power in the CIS.
Such a prospect was not exactly enthralling for the invitees, and four presidents opted to skip the occasion at the last minute, giving various excuses (EDM, July 21; Kommersant, July 22). Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov has never been a fan of the CIS and, after reducing his status to an “associate member” last year, he refused to interrupt his vacation this year. Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian caught a cold, which was probably unfortunate, but of no great import, since Moscow was not planning to launch any fresh initiative on Karabakh and is generally inclined to take Yerevan for granted. Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko decided that he had nothing to discuss with Moscow until a government is formed in Kyiv, since Putin’s opinion of Viktor Yanukovych, who hopes to claim to the position of prime minister, is known only too well. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili needed and even asked for a face-to-face meeting with Putin, but when the request was diplomatically turned down, he cancelled the trip at the last moment.
The Georgian case is perhaps the most burning one in the entire CIS zone, and Putin’s clearly conveyed refusal to give it due attention is even more worrisome than the shootouts and explosions in Tskhinvali. Saakashvili paid a visit to Washington two weeks prior to the G-8 summit, and he had expected that President George W. Bush, together with his European allies, would raise the issue of Russia’s support to secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia at an opportune moment. It did not happen, perhaps because Lebanon demanded priority attention (Prognosis.ru, July 19). Putin now feels emboldened to experiment with direct pressure on Georgia, such as staging military exercises, while in the Russian mainstream media the campaign against “war mongers” in Tbilisi has reached new highs (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 24). The din drowns out rare voices, like Yulia Latynina’s, that warn about the risk of being drawn into a full-scale interstate war by the force of Moscow’s own propaganda and the parochial interests of a few “peacekeeping” colonels who control the smuggling business in South Ossetia (Ekho Moskvy, July 22).
The “frozen” conflict in Transnistria has also recently shown dangerous spasms, so Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin decided to come to Moscow in an attempt to cut some ice in bilateral relations, which have stayed on a very low plateau since he declined Putin’s peace plan in December 2003. Having no illusions about the prospects of integration, Voronin was generous with his praise of the value of CIS, hoping at least to get some relaxation of the Russian ban on imports of Moldavian wine (Ekho Moskvy, July 21). President Ilham Aliyev from Azerbaijan probably enjoyed the races, where his horse finished nose-to-nose with the Russian favorite, but it was hard to detect any interest in the CIS on his part (Kommersant, July 24). The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which was joyfully inaugurated on the eve of the G-8 summit, is a project hugely more important to him than anything in the Babylonian tower of paperwork produced during the 15 years of the Commonwealth’s fruitless existence.
Only one diehard enthusiast of deepening cooperation (as he was of preserving the USSR in 1991) attempted to make a difference at the summit. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev presented a well-developed draft for reforming the CIS centered on a proposal to adopt decisions strictly by consensus on the few matters that were of importance for all members and to guarantee that such decisions would be mandatory to implement (Polit.ru, July 21). By no means an idealist, Nazarbayev appealed to the common political sense of his colleagues, suggesting a drastic streamlining of the bureaucratic procedures and, taking a clue from the G-8 method, appointing “sherpas” for hammering out the details (Vedomosti, July 24). His sound ideas could have reinvigorated the Commonwealth a few years back, but now they are demonstratively out of place.
The problem is not that Ukraine has lost interest in the CIS and is considering an “exit strategy”; neither is it Georgia’s desire to join NATO nor Turkmenistan’s self-isolation. The main problem for Nazarbayev’s plan is that it does not fit Putin’s vision of a Russia-centered, tightly controlled organization that has few “horizontal” links between its members. Insisting on adopting a binding “common position” on international issues around the Russian line, Putin is challenging the malcontents to quit the CIS. By the official summit later this year, some of them might indeed do it; but that hardly would make it possible to transform the curtailed Commonwealth into a functional structure.