Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 20

Compartmentalizing a multilateral summit into bilateral meetings–a decided innovation–marked this week’s first gathering of presidents of CIS countries under Vladimir Putin in Moscow (see the Monitor, January 26). Russia’s acting and prospective president arranged bilateral meetings between himself and each head of state, as well as two subgroup meetings with the presidents of the South Caucasus countries, and confined the real negotiations over thorny problems to these meetings. The plenary forum, by contrast, earned the sobriquet “discussion club” from presidents otherwise as different in their outlook as Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan.

The emphasis on bilateral meetings under the facade of multilateralism is likely to become a constant feature at CIS summits under Putin. His policy statements as prime minister, just prior to his recent elevation to the presidency (Itar-Tass, Federal News Service, December 16, 22; see the Monitor, December 17, 1999, January 6) had already foreshadowed the shift of emphasis toward bilateralism in Russia’s policy with respect to the CIS. In those statements, Putin viewed CIS relations as a sum of Russia’s relations with each country. This approach hearkens back to the modus operandi of the defunct Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), organizations nominally multilateral, but in which Moscow dealt with the member countries on a bilateral basis for maximum leverage. Yet Moscow was always careful to preserve the appearance of multilateralism, and will almost certainly continue doing so in the CIS, inasmuch as that appearance goes hand in hand with Russia’s ambition to be accorded the special status of a “bloc leader.”

Moscow’s bilateral leverage over CIS countries is, in most cases, incomparably weaker than it was in the former Soviet bloc. The effectiveness of that leverage today is a function not only of Russia’s residual capacity for coercion, but also of the resolve, skill or indeed cunning of the national leaderships of CIS member countries in defending their interests. Putin’s separate meetings with the presidents of Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasus countries at this summit illustrated this new reality, one which in many cases produces a stalemate on pressing problems.

Putin’s and Kuchma’s spokesmen announced that the two leaders’ meeting had “not specifically taken up” the situation of Russian fuel deliveries to Ukraine. Ukraine is currently in the throes of an energy crisis. Russian oil deliveries have been reduced to a bare trickle since mid-December in retaliation for Ukrainian pilfering of Russian gas from the transit pipelines. Russian natural gas deliveries are in jeopardy due to Ukraine’s immense arrears, and in the absence of an agreement not only on repayment, but even on the actual size of those arrears. In CIS official parlance, “not taking up” an issue implies one of two things: either a disagreement too deep to be papered over in a communique, or a prior understanding to remove a controversial issue from the agenda for the sake of atmospherics. In that vein, the Putin-Kuchma meeting “did not take up” the subject of Chechnya either; airing that subject would have forced Putin to acknowledge and deal with Ukraine’s reservations about the conduct of Russia’s military operations.

As a goodwill, though low-cost, gesture to Ukraine, the Russian side agreed to extend the validity of an earlier arrangement whereby the Ukrainian prime minister rotates into the chair of the Council of Heads of Government of CIS member countries. Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin had in 1998 consented to give up Russia’s de facto monopoly on that chair as of 1999–the first case of Russian observance of the rotation rule in a top CIS body (see the Monitor, January 26). The exception was, to be sure, facilitated if not necessitated by the fact that the office of Russian Prime Minister changed hands four or five times from 1997 to 1999. Under those circumstances, Ukraine took over the chairmanship of the Council of Heads of Government in January 1999 through its then Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko. Ukraine’s new prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, now steps into that CIS chair (Itar-Tass, UNIAN, Eastern Economist Daily (Kyiv), January 24-26).

The meeting between Putin and Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi produced an understanding to hold a Russian-Ukrainian-Moldovan summit on the Transdniester problem, with the participation of Transdniester leaders and representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Scheduled for July, the summit seems timed to bolster Lucinschi’s chances to be returned to office in this year’s presidential election. For the first time at an official international meeting of any type, the Moldovan delegation at this summit included officials of Transdniester–namely, the would-be foreign affairs minister and a deputy prime minister of that unrecognized republic. The Moldovan Foreign Affairs Ministry’s spokesman explained this concession as yet another proof, to Moscow and to Tiraspol, of “Moldova’s flexibility and goodwill” with regard to the Transdniester problem. Nevertheless, the Putin-Lucinschi meeting apparently “did not specifically take up” the matter of the removal of Russian arsenals and troops from Transdniester (Itar-Tass, Flux, Basapress, January 24-26; see the Monitor, December 6, 1999, January 14).

Putin’s meeting with President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan stood out as an exception in that it confirmed an evolving special relationship between the two countries. Moscow has singled out a willing Karimov as a partner in resisting “international terrorism” in Central Asia. This relationship fits in with Uzbekistan’s own quest for recognition as the preeminent power in that region. Putin had virtually extended that recognition during his visit to Tashkent as prime minister last month. Karimov in turn declared during the CIS summit that “Russia is the main force which will itself thwart, and help us thwart, the geopolitical designs and hopes of terrorist centers and extremist forces.” The Uzbek president came close to describing the Russian-Uzbek security partnership in terms of a personal partnership between himself and Putin. The two presidents decided to hold a joint Russian-Uzbek-Kyrgyz military exercise on the territories of those two Central Asian countries this year. Karimov, while reaffirming his decision to stay out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, underscored the value of military and security arrangements with Russia on a bilateral basis (Itar-Tass, January 24-26; Uzbek Television, January 24; see the Monitor, December 16, 1999, January 6).