Following a series of recent setbacks, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been dismissed as an irrelevant institution. In an apparent attempt to reinvent itself, the CIS has clinched a fresh deal with the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Yet despite claims of “unanimity” between the CIS and SCO, it remains to be seen whether Beijing is still interested in closer ties with failing post-Soviet institutions.
On April 12, SCO Executive Secretary Zhang Deguang and CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo signed a memorandum of mutual understanding that prioritizes “economic integration, security, and humanitarian cooperation,” according to Rushailo. While both blocs aim for economic integration, the CIS and SCO countries will now join efforts to combat organized crime, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and illegal migration.
Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan reportedly told Rushailo that, since the SCO and the CIS work in the same region and share similar goals, Beijing would support cooperation between the two organizations. China expects the CIS will play “play an active role in boosting regional peace and economic prosperity,” according to Tang (Xinhua, April 12).
Although Chinese officials refrained from concrete pledges regarding ties with the CIS, Rushailo quickly hailed Beijing’s encouraging statement. Following his talks in Beijing with senior Chinese officials, Rushailo told Interfax (April 13) that China considers the CIS “an important and much-needed mechanism with great prospects.”
Moscow likewise hailed the deal between the SCO and the CIS. In an April 13 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared, “We hope the document will facilitate the development of contacts between the SCO and the CIS” (Itar-Tass, April 13). Presumably, Moscow interpreted the non-binding agreement with the SCO as a sign of Chinese support.
Nonetheless, while in Beijing, Rushailo was forced to concede that the CIS faced difficult times. Asked to comment on a recent statement by Ukrainian Economics Minister Serhiy Teryokhin that the CIS had no future, Rushailo replied, “There are those who seek to interpret this statement as the opinion of the Ukrainian state, but the opinion of one minister is not the opinion of the country.”
Rushailo conceded that the CIS has much to improve. Recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have revealed a political crisis within the CIS because of “authorities’ weakness and socio-economic problems,” he said. The recent events also highlighted the need to reform the CIS and its institutions. However, Rushailo insisted that the CIS remains an important organization (RIA-Novosti, April 13).
But given the Kremlin’s recent foreign policy setbacks in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, all CIS members, the CIS hardly seems a viable mechanism capable of achieving Moscow’s goals.
In a telling gaffe, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently referred to the CIS in the past tense. Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently described the CIS as a vehicle of “civilized divorce” among the former Soviet states in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
Russian officials also concede that the CIS basically does not work. The CIS is largely an advisory body, as its decisions cannot be enforced, Putin advisor Aslanbek Aslakhanov noted (Rosbalt, April 14).
Moreover, some Russian media outlets have speculated that the Commonwealth’s days are numbered. When several top Ukrainian officials voiced concerns over CIS inefficiency, Nezavisimaya gazeta suggested that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko could destroy the CIS in a week or so (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 13).
Apart from the CIS, post-Soviet Russia has prioritized the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In February 2003, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan agreed on the creation of a so-called “Single Economic Space” to promote greater convergence of economic policies and trade legislation. These groupings were intended to boost economic and security ties, yet these post-Soviet organizations have made little actual progress.
Some Ukrainian officials have tried to dismiss speculation that Kyiv intends to bury the CIS. Oleg Grachev, head of the Ukrainian parliamentary delegation, told participants at the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly meeting in St. Petersburg on April 15 that Ukraine has no plans to abandon the CIS or the Single Economic Space agreements. However, he conceded that many Ukrainian politicians oppose both the CIS and the Single Economic Space (Interfax, April 15).
Russian officials also indicated that some post-Soviet organizations could fare better than the CIS. The EEC could become a leader in post-Soviet economic integration among the CIS states, Russia’s State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov noted. Russia aims at developing economic integration with its neighbors, he said. Of the many post-Soviet economic bodies, the EEC is the most efficient, according to Gryzlov (RIA-Novosti, April 14).
Yet despite optimistic official pronouncements, recent developments have inevitably raised serious questions regarding relevance of the CIS and other post-Soviet organizations. Therefore it remains far from certain whether the ongoing attempts by the CIS seeks to justify its existence could help this and other post-Soviet groupings to overcome the crisis.
However, there have been warnings that attempts to rely on China’s backing could end up as dependency on Beijing. Russia’s anti-Western ruling class has tended to view the former Soviet republics as the “near abroad,” but, according to political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, Russia could end up becoming China’s “near abroad” (Grani.ru, April 15). Therefore, the Chinese role in post-Soviet integration could bring as many risks as advantages.