The 15th, “jubilee” Commonwealth of Independent States summit of heads of state was to have been held in Minsk on October 16-17. However, it transpired as late as October 10 that the summit is being postponed, probably for late November, by a joint decision of Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, to the surprise of most other countries. Apparently, disagreements among otherwise loyalist leaders over CIS reforms forced the delay.
Instead of the heads of state, only the CIS Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers met in Minsk on October 16, and in a severely depleted composition. Only three ministers — Russia’s Sergei Lavrov as outgoing chairman of the Council, Kazakhstan’s Kasymzhomart Tokayev as incoming chairman, and Tajikistan’s Talbak Nazarov as assistance supplicant — bothered to travel to the meeting. Other ministers announced that they were sending deputies or ignored the event altogether. Once assembled in Minsk, the delegations agreed to cut short the agenda “in order to save time.”
Formally, the bone of contention is Nazarbayev’s concept of reforming the CIS. He presented this concept in July of this year at an informal CIS summit in Moscow for further examination and ultimate adoption at the aborted October 16-17 summit.
Nazarbayev’s concept would limit the CIS mainly to matters of transport, migration policy, cross-border criminality, and education and culture — a concept sometimes derided as a “social CIS.” Furthermore, this reform would reduce the CIS operating budget by cutting the approved roster of CIS bodies and their staffs (a perennial cost-cutting proposal by Nazarbayev). The reform concept would change the CIS Charter to reflect the organization’s changed role.
Russia and Belarus closed ranks against this concept at the Minsk meeting. Hosting the event, President Alexander Lukashenka dismissed Nazarbayev’s proposal as “so-called reforms” that would involve a “CIS breakup” and “could only benefit our adversaries.”
Lavrov supported Lukashenka’s view that all concerns and problems in the CIS can be addressed within the framework of the existing Charter. Moscow regards Nazarbayev’s concept with misgivings, because a CIS reduced to social functions could no longer serve Russia as a political stage for its bloc-leader ambitions.
Nevertheless, the ministerial meeting showed that the CIS atrophy process continues. The meeting mainly prepared proposals on social issues — migration and the readmission of illegal migrants, laundering of unlawfully earned incomes, retraining of specialists and mutual recognition of diplomas, care for veterans and preservation of the collective memory on World War II — for consideration at the rescheduled summit of heads of state (Interfax, October 16).
At this meeting, Georgia and Azerbaijan joined Ukraine’s initiative proposing an immediate start to demarcation of land and maritime borders between CIS member countries. The proposal mainly seeks to overcome Russia’s foot-dragging on border demarcation, most conspicuously with Ukraine. Under the proposal, bilateral demarcation would adhere to the former administrative borders between Soviet republics (Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, October 16). Based on the existing body of international law (which recognizes the former inter-republic borders as international borders post-1991), the proposal upholds Ukraine’s rights regarding border delimitation and demarcation with Russia in the Azov Sea, Kerch Strait, and the Black Sea. It also upholds Georgia’s territorial integrity vis-à-vis Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Azerbaijan’s vis-à-vis Armenia.
Lukashenka bristled at the planned summit’s postponement by fiat as indicating that “some countries consider themselves first-class countries. This very fact reflects the existing drawbacks within the CIS that have to be discussed at the forthcoming summit” (Belarus Television, October 16).
Most leaders back home probably welcomed the postponement, however. If held now, the summit would have been overshadowed by Russia’s political and economic assault on Georgia and economic embargo against Moldova. Heads of state at the summit — and also ministers of foreign affairs at this meeting — could foresee being placed in the uncomfortable position of taking sides in Russia’s conflict with Georgia.
Most CIS member countries are deeply, if tacitly, worried to see Russia bullying two of the member countries so openly, with almost no reaction within CIS bodies and seeming impunity on the part of international institutions. Certain leaders of member countries undoubtedly would wish to express their solidarity. Others would at least want to avoid the setting of an ominous precedent in intra-CIS relations. However, leaders must calculate the high risks of objecting to Moscow’s conduct amid the near-indifference of Western governments toward the ongoing pressures on Georgia and Moldova.