The presidents of CIS member countries held what was billed an “informal summit” on February 28-March 1 in Kazakhstan. The Kremlin chose the ski resort Chimbulak, high above Almaty, as the main scene of this summit. The event was staged as a winter counterpart–the first of its type–to the summer “informal summits” of the CIS, which Putin is fond of holding on the Black Sea in the Soviet tradition. The choice of a ski resort for this summit was almost certainly intended to ensure that the event bore the imprint of Putin’s style as a winter sportsman. The Kremlin’s political input, however, did not reach far beyond that.
This summit was overshadowed by at least three other events that highlight Moscow’s growing difficulties in restoring control over its former dependencies. Those, all ongoing, are military deployments by the U.S. and its allies in Central Asia, the U.S. decision to deploy special troops to Georgia and an internal political backlash against the Kremlin-supported Communist regime of Moldova.
In Ukraine as well, secessionist and pan-Slavic noises by the Crimean legislature’s Communist chairman Leonid Hrach and his supporters embarrassed the Kremlin on the eve of last week’s summit. The embarrassment grew when some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies in the Duma expressed sympathy with Hrach’s camp. Russia’s executive branch of government, and Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin in Kyiv, had to move quickly to contain the fallout from Ukraine’s presidential administration and political forces (UNIAN, February 27-March 1).
The Kremlin’s growing difficulties on all levels–CIS-wide, subregional and in individual countries–are almost certainly the main reason why no agenda had been prepared for this summit, and no decisions or communiques were adopted. Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, making good on his pre-summit warning, criticized Central Asian countries for their willingness to host American and other Western forces. Lukashenka asked the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, all signatory to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, to account for their failure to provide “in-depth, detailed information to other treaty signatories” about the troop deployment agreements. This gripe is primarily Moscow’s, and there is little doubt that in this case Lukashenka served–as he often does–as a megaphone for the Kremlin, when the latter keeps its criticism private.
Little time was wasted during the summit on discussing the operation of the six-country CIS Collective Security Treaty or the activities of the CIS-wide Antiterrorism Center, which is based in Moscow and has a branch office in Bishkek. Both the decade-old treaty and the two year-old center–the latter a Putin brainchild–have proven stillborn because Russia is unable to sustain either, while most member countries do not trust either of these organizations. The summiteers found some complimentary words for the Antiterrorism Center’s Bishkek office, skirting over the fact that its current staff has a grand total of eight officers, and no operational or intelligence-gathering capability (Interfax, Minsk Radio, February 28-March 1).
Both that center and the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) had generated the topics for a flurry of redundant meetings held in advance of the Kazakhstan sessions. But no decisions materialized. Instead, the EAEC’s Central Asian member countries to all intents and purposes seceded from it, leaving only Russia and Belarus as committed members. The summit, therefore, marked an informal demise for the EAEC, another Putin creation, born in October 2000 as the fourth futile attempt in CIS history at creating a CIS economic or customs union.
On February 28, 2002, Presidents Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan, Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan held a quadripartite meeting in Almaty, a few hours before the official start of the summit. They signed the founding documents of a Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), with the aim of creating a single Central Asian market for goods, capital and labor. The presidents described this as the most effective way for Central Asia to join the world economic system as a region, rather than as four separate countries. Setting this goal amounts to a no confidence vote in the EAEC.
The four presidents, moreover, declared that the EAEC suffered from the CIS flaw of excessive bureaucracy, with superfluous central bodies which for the EAEC alone number some 1,500 officials and staff. The CACO will have no central bodies, but only national coordinators’ offices, one per country, with each of the four to be subordinated directly to the respective president. These founding documents were signed following a December meeting, held in Dushanbe in Russia’s absence, and in the immediate wake of the U.S. military and political entry into the region.
At both the Dushanbe and the Almaty meetings, the presidents urged Russian and international media to stop portraying Central Asia as a “danger zone.” This image, they said, is no longer justified after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the recent improvements in the capabilities of national security forces in Central Asia. Meanwhile, in Almaty at their joint briefing, the presidents also said the lingering “danger zone” image inhibits Western investment.
Whether the CACO would work better than previous Central Asian groupings of the same nature is far from certain. The latest such grouping, the Central Asian Economic Community of the same countries, was laid to rest at the Dushanbe meeting, to make room for CACO. The only quasi-certainty is that the improved security situation, and the improved prospects of overcoming Central Asia’s physical isolation from the global economy, should give this effort a better chance than it had in the past (Habar, Kazakhstan Today, Tashkent Radio, Dushanbe Radio, Interfax, February 28-March 1).
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