The CIS summit, held on May 31-June 1 in Minsk, served as stark evidence of the Kremlin’s effort to lend this amorphous grouping a centrally manageable shape. Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided from his first days in that office not simply to accept the spontaneous splintering of the CIS into subgroups, but to manage and to institutionalize the process. He hopes to control the subgroups by mismatching each against Russia’s strengths and assets. Within that system, Russia is the sole country present in every subgroup, pulling its disproportionate weight within each, and hoping to ensure that most interactions within and among subgroups proceed through the Russian government.
Parallel with this approach, Putin is dealing with each member country on a bilateral basis, using such instruments as can best exploit each country’s vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is careful to preserve the CIS as an outer shell, even as the content is turning from being dysfunctional into being merely irrelevant. The main purpose of preserving that outer appearance has to do with Russia’s ambition to retain the international status of a bloc leader, claimant to an influence sphere coterminous with the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
The subgroups include the Russia-Belarus Union State; the Collective Security Treaty with its political and military structures, encompassing Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which closed ranks under “antiterrorism” slogans at a summit last week in Yerevan; the “Caucasus Four,” wherein Putin hopes to pull Georgia and Azerbaijan alongside Russia and its ally Armenia, so as to create a regional security and conflict resolution system under Moscow’s leadership, in isolation from the West; and the newly founded Eurasian Economic Community. The GUUAM group is in the CIS but not of the CIS.
The Minsk summit consisted mainly of sessions between Putin and each of these subgroups, as well as bilateral meetings of Putin with each individual head of state. Cumulatively, these small format meetings overshadowed the plenary session and joint appearance of the presidents, reducing that erstwhile format to insignificance (Itar-Tass, RIA, ORT, Belarusan Television, May 31, June 1-3; see the Monitor, March 12, April 2, 10, 27, May 1, 25, 30-31; Fortnight in Review, March 16, April 13).
CUSTOMS UNION BURIED, EURASIAN COMMUNITY NOT QUITE BORN.