Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 96

The capital of Belarus seems set to turn into a hub of CIS loyalist activities in the period immediately ahead. On May 12 and 15, CIS Executive Committee Chairman Yuri Yarov of Russia made public the results of the talks he had just held with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s instructions. Lukashenka will host in late May a meeting of the presidents and prime ministers of the CIS Customs Union member countries and, in quick succession, a meeting of the presidents, foreign affairs ministers and defense ministers of the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) member countries. The two groups are made up of Russia, Belarus, Armenia (in the CTS but not in the Customs Union), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CST meeting will be the first held outside Russia and the first in that expanded format.

Belarus will, moreover, take over in June the chairmanship of the CIS Council of Heads of Government of the twelve member countries. This succession illustrates the peculiar alphabetical order which seems to be in force in the CIS. Under the organization’s ground rules, the member countries ought to chair the CIS bodies in an annual rotation, according to the Russian alphabetical order of the countries’ names; the countries which use the Latin script bowed to the Cyrillic in this case. It turned out, however, that the CIS version of that script uniquely begins with the letter R, as Russia took over and kept most chairmanships from the inception of the CIS to date.

The Council of Heads of Government apparently needed seven years to learn another letter, which turned out to be U for Ukraine. In June 1999, Russia made a gesture to Ukraine by allowing that country to rotate into the chair of the prime ministers’ council. Without explanation, Moscow skipped over Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both of which precede Ukraine in the Cyrillic alphabetical order. Tajikistan was evidently deemed insufficiently respectable for chairing the prime ministers’ council, and Uzbekistan–from Moscow’s standpoint–less worth propitiating compared to Ukraine. The symbolic concession to Ukraine did not affect the fortunes of the CIS one way or another.

With Ukraine’s annual term about to expire, Moscow rewinds to the beginning of the alphabet, only to come up against more difficulties stemming from the organization’s inherent malaise. As Yarov announced yesterday, Azerbaijan and Armenia are not fit to chair the Council of Heads of Government because these two CIS member countries are at war with each other. The chairmanship of the prime ministers’ council thus devolves on Belarus. That country’s new prime minister, Vladimir Yarmoshin, helpfully comes from the Russian Federation, as do also the Foreign Affairs and Defense ministers of Belarus, Ural Latypov and Aleksandr Chumakov, who will be chairing the respective ministerial councils in the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

The Minsk summits and the ensuing period will therefore consolidate the status already held by Lukashenka as privileged partner and ally of Russia within the CIS. By the same token, the upcoming summits should expose the divide between the independent, Western-oriented countries on the one hand and the “Russia plus five” group on the other hand, a group itself marked by cleavages between Russia and her less than fully loyal allies. Those cracks partly explain Moscow’s decision to assemble the ostensibly loyalist group in Minsk, separately from and ahead of the general summit of the CIS in Moscow. The latter was due in April and has been postponed tentatively for June without explanation. Putin and Lukashenka have a choice to make it either a contentious or a meaningless summit, depending on whether they attempt to centralize the organization or allow it to muddle through. (Itar-Tass, RIA, 12-13, May 15; see the Fortnight in Review, February 4; the Monitor, January 26, 28, May 1).