In diplomacy as in other endeavors, perseverance is often rewarded. In the newly independent states along its borders, Russia has persevered, probing for ways to recover lost influence. Despite setbacks, these efforts are paying off.
The Commonwealth of Independent States is a loose association of twelve former Soviet republics. Besides Russia itself, there are three European states (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova); three Caucasian states (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan); and five Central Asian states (the Stans: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan). The Baltic states do not belong.Russia envisioned the CIS at its founding in 1992 as a sort of Warsaw Pact and COMECON, a military alliance and economic bloc that would ensure Moscow’s primacy in “post-Soviet space.” But erosion quickly set in. A unified military force disintegrated, replaced in 1992-1993 by a collective security treaty which Georgia and Turkmenistan refused to sign. In the second half of the decade, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova dropped out, later linking with Georgia in a consultative group known acronymically as GUUAM. The GUUAM over the past three years has expanded its members’ role in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and served as a counterweight to Russia’s dominant position in the region.
Russia’s lack of resources and conflicts among the CIS members made erosion of CIS security institutions inevitable. Armenia and Azerbaijan, at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, could not guarantee each other’s security. Georgia faced ethnic insurrections in Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia that enjoyed Russian support. Moldova chafed at Russian troops propping up a breakaway regime in Transdniester. Ukraine and Russia quarreled over the disposition of the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan wanted to explore new relationships in Central Asia. The seemingly disparate GUUAM countries found a common interest in pipeline policy, pushing for a non-Russian route to bring Caspian and Central Asian fuels to European markets.
Last month the six remaining participants in the CIS collective security system, Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, met in Armenia to pursue a collective-security structure based on three regional groups of joint armed forces, in which members submit national components to a joint command. Russia and Belarus form a group in the west, Russia and Armenia form a group in the Caucasus, and Russia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are to form a group in Central Asia.
The western group already exists on paper, though neither Russia nor Belarus has troops in the other’s territory. The Caucasian group is sturdier, with Russian and Armenian forces (the army’s fifth corps) under joint command in northwest Armenia, near the Turkish border. The Central Asian group is in the planning stage, with an ambitious vision of units from each country forming a “rapid deployment force” that would use Russian airlift capacity to combat “international terrorism” and “armed incursions.” The April meeting in Moscow set an August target date for placing this multinational force under a joint staff, but funding problems will almost surely cause delays.
The April meeting has already paid off diplomatically. With Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan ready to accept a Russian-led system, Uzbekistan, the largest and most powerful of the Central Asian republics, risks isolation. Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, may now be ready to return to Moscow’s fold. In Moscow last week Karimov signed an agreement on “cooperation for the protection of borders.” Russia and Uzbekistan do not border each other, but the agreement implies a commitment by Russia to use the troops it maintains in Tajikistan to protect Uzbekistan from incursions by Islamic militants based in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan.
Karimov’s willingness to seek and accept Russian help is a reversal of policy. The shift suggests that Uzbekistan, which put the second “U” in GUUAM just two years ago, may now informally or formally back out of that group. At the same time the new president of Moldova, the pro-Moscow Communist Vladimir Voronin, says GUUAM may lose its “M” if it “impairs the Russian Federation’s, and by implication Moldova’s, interests.” That would leave only Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan–with Ukraine in political turmoil and Georgia under constant and heavy Russian pressure. Persistence pays.