Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 80

The meeting of ministers of foreign affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States member countries, held on April 21 in Moscow, exposed a profound split in the organization. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan formed a common front on issues of shared concern, opposing Russian policies directed against their interests. The four countries are members of the GUAM group, though they did not act in that capacity at the conference.

The Ukrainian delegation, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Borys Tarasyuk, led this group of independent-minded countries in the debate on most economic and political issues of concern to them. Russia, with the support of loyalist or neutralist countries whose interests are not involved in those issues, rejected the four countries’ initiatives with a high-handedness that can only exacerbate the differences at upcoming high-level CIS meetings.

Georgia and Moldova submitted separately prepared statements about Russia’s ban on imports of their wines and other agricultural products on the Russian market. Describing the ban as politically motivated, abusive, and unwarranted, the statements underscored the “massive economic damage” inflicted on the two countries. Georgia and Moldova regard the ban as an “unfriendly action” by the Russian government, are asking the Russian government for explanations, and are challenging the Russian agencies involved — mainly the Consumer Protection Inspectorate — to show cause for this action. The Ukrainian delegation lodged its own complaint about recent Russian restrictions on the import of a wide range of Ukrainian agricultural products on the Russian market.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov handled those grievances at the concluding press briefing with a dismissive reference to “some kind of declarations” made during the conference. He warned by Georgia and Moldova against “politicizing” the issue, as this “will not facilitate a solution.” Russia takes the position that the issue should be discussed at the level of technical agencies. Thus, Moscow seeks to evade political responsibility for a measure undoubtedly ordered by high political authorities. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine intend to raise the issue again at the upcoming CIS meetings of prime ministers (May 25) and of the heads of state shortly thereafter.

The Russian side also blocked Ukraine’s proposal to discuss the creation of a CIS Free Trade Zone at the conference. The proposal, nominally endorsed by Russia as well, is almost a decade old and no member country seriously expects Russia to actually implement it. In Ukraine, however, the proposal has become topical again in connection with the Russia-planned Single Economic Space (Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan, with Ukraine invited to become a member). Some groups in Ukraine (not only within the Party of Regions) want the country to join the Single Economic Space in one form or another — a move that would compromise Ukraine’s European aspirations. On the other hand, Ukrainian proponents of integration with the European Union cite the proposal for a CIS Free Trade Zone as potentially advantageous to Ukraine as well as compatible with the country’s progress toward the EU. However, Ukrainian attempts to discuss the free-trade proposal with Moscow shatter against the resistance of Russian protectionist interests. Thus, the Moscow conference strengthened the view that the CIS is, at best, useless to member countries generally and, at worst, actually detrimental to their interests.

A proposal to discuss the “frozen conflicts” at the conference was also blocked by the Russian side. Ukraine took the lead in submitting this proposal with the support of Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The obstruction by Moscow and its allies will strengthen the case for internationalization of the existing “peacekeeping” and negotiating frameworks on Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, as well as underscoring the value of American efforts to settle the Karabakh conflict.

Ukraine asked the conference to prepare a proposal for the upcoming CIS summit to express its attitude to the 1930-33 famine and genocide in Ukraine (the Holodomor). However, the Russian side orchestrated a procedural move that eliminated the proposal from the agenda. Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan voted with Russia against the proposal. Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan abstained. Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan voted with Ukraine.

According to Lavrov at the concluding briefing, discussion of the Holodomor would have “politicized” a historical issue. Lavrov argued — as Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin also did in Kyiv — that Russians and other Soviet citizens suffered equally in Soviet times and it would therefore be inappropriate to single out any people in this regard.

This argument is heard regularly from Moscow about the Baltic states as well: “It was a common pain in the Soviet Union.” Such an argument constitutes the ultimate expression of a social culture of collectivism. It also overlooks, first, the fact that Moscow organized the famine and deportations in Ukraine, the Baltic states and elsewhere; and, second, that the Kremlin today is actively discouraging the attempts to come to terms with Soviet Russia’s own totalitarian recent history. While refusing to assess the actions of the Soviet regime, Russia at the same time claims prerogatives as the legal successor of the USSR.

The Moscow conference was to have discussed a CIS Executive Committee report on implementing decisions on CIS reform, adopted by the heads of state at the August 2005 summit in Astana. A corresponding Russian proposal envisaged setting up a high-level group on “measures to enhance the effectiveness of the CIS.” Neither initiative was mentioned after the conference. In his conclusions, Tarasyuk was scathing about the CIS: “not a normal international organization,” “unresponsive to situations that are most sensitive to member states,” “useless,” and “has no future.”

(Interfax, Itar-Tass, Moldpres, Imedi TV, April 21, 22)