On August 30, the Russian government announced its decision to abandon the 1992 Bishkek agreement on visa-free travel by citizens of CIS member countries across those countries’ borders (see the Monitor, September 1). On September 4, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that it had officially notified the CIS Executive Committee and the individual member countries about Moscow’s decision. The Bishkek agreement will cease to apply to Russia within ninety days of receipt of that notification. Russia’s note proposes to negotiate alternative arrangements with individual CIS member countries on a bilateral basis within that period (Itar-Tass, September 4). Accompanying remarks by Russian officials suggest that member countries of the CIS Customs Union would be offered preferential arrangements (Itar-Tass, RIA, September 2, 4)
In most CIS countries, Moscow’s decision has been received with consternation for reasons common to loyalist and independent-minded countries alike. First, the decision can lead to additional complications in the intra-CIS trade, transit and human contacts. Second, it hits the member countries’ diasporas in Russia and their remittances, which are crucial to the economies of a number of these countries. Third, Moscow will probably use both the cancellation of visa-free travel and the negotiation of successor arrangements on a bilateral basis for political leverage on CIS countries. Fourth, Moscow’s unilateral move evidences disregard bordering on contempt for the consultative procedures which theoretically exist within the CIS.
Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is Russia’s closest European ally, has joined the chorus of complaints. “If for some reason you don’t deign to consult with us–and you should have consulted–you might at least have informed us beforehand,” Lukashenka admonished the Kremlin on live television. He strongly implied that Moscow’s unilateral move represents a violation of the Russia-Belarus Union treaty’s clauses on mutual consultation and the coordination of foreign policy. Although visa-free travel will almost certainly continue between Russia and Belarus, the latter now faces a political, economic and bureaucratic dilemma. Should it decline to follow Russia’s lead, it would open a rift in the union. Should it follow that lead and cancel its own visa-free travel arrangements with CIS countries, it would hurt their interests and face retaliation in kind, Lukashenka observed. “We shall have to reflect on this issue,” he concluded, in a clear indication that Russia’s partner-in-union does not automatically conform to Moscow’s decisions (Belarusan Television, Russian Television, Itar-Tass, September 1, 4).
Ukraine’s main concern, as stated by President Leonid Kuchma, is that the imposition of visa regulations and border controls “would practically bury the [proposed] CIS Free Trade Zone. The FTZ presupposes free movement of goods, capital and people. Failing that, the question arises: Who needs the CIS?” The remarks show that Kuchma continues using the FTZ to score debating points against Moscow; that project has in fact been laid to rest at the last two CIS summits. With regard to human contacts, Foreign Affairs Minister Borys Tarasyuk has predicted that Russia’s move will have no impact on Ukrainian citizens because Ukraine is not a party to the multilateral Bishkek agreement. Visa-free travel between Ukraine and Russia is a matter of bilateral arrangements, and Moscow is unlikely to impose visa requirements that would hamper communication between Russia and the multimillion Russian diaspora in Ukraine (UNIAN, DINAU, August 31, September 1; Eastern Economist Daily (Kyiv), September 1, 4; see the Monitor, January 26, 28, June 22-23; Fortnight in Review, February 4, July 7).
Georgia’s situation is a special one. In December 1999 and again in February 2000–well before moving to abandon the Bishkek agreement–Moscow moved to cancel visa-free travel for Georgia as an undisguised retaliation for Tbilisi’s pro-Western course. At the same time, Moscow proposes to introduce special visa facilities for its Abkhaz and South Ossetian proteges (Prime-News, September 1-4).
Armenia will almost certainly qualify for continued visa-free travel arrangements with Russia by dint of the two countries’ alliance and the influence of Armenian diaspora circles in Moscow. The Armenian Foreign Affairs Ministry has expressed confident hope that Moscow will in short order sign an agreement on visa-free travel with the “strategic partner” Yerevan (Vremya Novostey, Armenpress, August 31, September 1). The situation of Azerbaijan is far from clear. Its agreement with Russia on visa-free travel is–like the Ukrainian-Russian agreement–a bilateral matter. Moscow, however, has since late 1999 systematically accused Azerbaijan of condoning the movement of supplies and “international terrorists” to Chechnya. Those accusations seem crafted as a pretext for imposing visa regulations or using that prospect as a means of political pressure on the pro-Western government in Baku.
Kazakhstan has urged Moscow to refrain from creating additional obstacles to the movement of people and goods across the common border. More than almost any CIS country, Kazakhstan depends on Russian transit routes for export to the West. Moreover, the Russian diaspora in Kazakhstan makes up approximately one-third of the country’s total population. A statement issued by Foreign Affairs Minister Yerlan Idrisov seems designed to reassure that diaspora, confused by the mother country’s unexpected move on visas. Idrisov announced that Astana’s position would “take into account the interests of ordinary people in the first place.” From a strictly practical standpoint, Russia would find it almost impossible to enforce a visa regime on the border with Kazakhstan. That border is approximately 7,000 kilometers long, poorly demarcated or even undemarcated, and very sparsely guarded (Habar, August 31, September 3-4).
Tajikistan, Russia’s closest ally in Asia, as well as a member of the CIS Customs Union, seems nevertheless a prime candidate for the imposition of visa controls by Russia. That situation is due to Tajikistan’s role as the primary drug-trafficking route from into Russia from Afghanistan. Tajik officialdom, law enforcement agencies and transport personnel are actively involved in the drug trade (Itar-Tass, August 31, September 1-2).
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