Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 10

By Pavel Baev

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), created hastily in late 1991 as the Soviet Union was falling apart, is such an obvious failure as an integration project and pathetic non-starter as an international organization that its very existence may constitute breaking news. It perhaps deserves some credit for preventing the collapse of massive Soviet super-structures, which might have produced violence on a grand scale, but that mission has long since been accomplished. Other institutions (like the OSCE) or ad hoc groups are taking care of the peace processes for a half-dozen extinguished conflicts, admittedly with little success. There is not much substance in the habitual CIS talk-shops on the ever-deepening economic cooperation. Even the hot issue of counterterrorism requires different formats for constructive discussions.

Yet time passes, and twice a year, eleven presidents (Turkmenbashi always has an excuse) pack their overnight bags and flock in their jets to one of the capitals, which this October happens to be Chisinau [Moldova]. In fact, this sleepy parody of a European city had hosted a CIS summit once before–and a quite dramatic one. In October 1997, President Boris Yeltsin faced a near mutiny when most of his colleagues ganged up against Moscow’s arrogant domination. President Vladimir Putin faced nothing of this sort: The other presidents merely tried to outdo one another with a gift for his 50th birthday. Leaving aside entirely the celebratory side of the summit, and the bunch of meaningless papers signed and added to the truckload of CIS archives, there are still reasons to assume that there was a drama behind this apparently hollow gathering.

The popular label of “president’s club” does not begin to explain the longevity of this odd quasi-institution. For one thing, there is nothing exclusive about it. The Baltic presidents never regretted their abstention, and even such notorious characters as Meciar and Milosevic never applied for membership. On the other hand, there is much more than the regular get-together of the presidents to the CIS routines. There are meetings of defense ministers, secretaries of security councils, parliamentary leaders, etc. And this brings us to one crucial observation: the misnamed Commonwealth is not at all an organization, but instead a network that functions remarkably smoothly and has much value for all its participants.

Indeed, in the new era defined by the war against terrorism with its flexible coalitions and ad hoc arrangements, networks are becoming the key organizational pattern of security, while such traditional institutions as NATO are struggling to adjust their clumsy political machinery and prove their relevance. One all-mighty superpower is no longer interested in permanent alliances, preferring instead to forge coalitions a-la-carte for every special occasion. This description applies to both the United States on a global scale and to Russia in the post-Soviet space.

What makes the CIS a useful network is definitely not the opportunity for the participants to compare one another’s problems. Belarus would gladly forget about the very existence of the Ferghana Valley. Kyrgyzstan’s opinion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is of little interest to the parties. It is Russia that forms the hub of all the intertwined interests and competing agendas, and for that reason only the GU(U)AM was a non-starter from day one. As Moscow has shifted the emphasis on bilateral relations with its post-Soviet neighbors, each of them has found it that much more important to belong to a network, which could soften (even if ever so slightly) this physical domination.

Arriving at the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin made it very clear that he had no personal commitment to the CIS and–in his pragmatic foreign policy course–saw it as a redundancy. That made the other presidents increasingly worried, and when in early 2001 Putin’s first lieutenant Sergei Ivanov (then secretary of the Security Council) hinted at a top-level security conference in Munich that the CIS could be disbanded, they rushed to confirm the value of the network. Putin’s unexpected suggestion in Chishinau to resign from the chairmanship should perhaps be seen as a continuation of the same game. The most independent-minded of his colleagues who had been entertaining the idea of a rotating chairmanship instantly jumped to plead him to stay in charge–which he gracefully agreed to.

Ritual “dancing with the bear” aside, the new power of Russia certainly makes a great deal of difference for the CIS routines. What matters here is not just its remarkable economic dynamism and even not so much its rise as an energy superpower (or, perhaps more precisely, powerhouse). The key parameter is that since 9/11, Moscow has acquired significant new political clout and serious international leverage. Putin’s determined drive westwards has perhaps taken many of his colleagues by surprise; some of them (Uzbekistan quite clearly and Georgia most desperately) might have evaluated the possibilities of playing Russia against the United States in the fluid situation of counterterrorist operations. By October 2002 such evaluations would have come out as negative: Moscow has proven itself an ally far more valuable to Washington, and the very fact that American troops are deployed in some of the CIS states makes the United States more, not less, interested in advanced cooperation with Russia. The U.S. administration is certainly not writing Moscow any blank checks for abusing its neighbors as it sees fit, but it is definitely allowing a more assertive line to be drawn.

Putin has shown penchant and skill in using this “soft” political power to build Russia’s dominance over its “near abroad” (the term is abandoned, not the attitude). He has easily outplayed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the “brotherly reunification” game, leaving him hanging on the thinnest of threads. He has confidently dismissed international ostracism of President Leonid Kuchma and embraced him wholeheartedly, sending Viktor Yushchenko to the camp of “hopeless opposition.” He has expressed support to President Vladimir Voronin in his handling of the Transnistrian problem, and accepted with no hint of a smile his remarkably stupid gift of a crystal crocodile (“the only animal that never backs down”).

This personalized networking points to a significant shift in Moscow’s modus operandi for the CIS: It now adopts, not the strategy of conflict manipulation of the early 1990s, but that of manipulating presidents. The point is not only that Moscow is becoming able to pick winners and losers; it is rather that they all turn into losers by definition. Putin has few if any concerns about the democratic credentials of his colleagues or their human rights records, but he knows their weaknesses and vulnerabilities intimately and has no doubts about exploiting those, not necessarily for advancing Russia’s strategic interests, but sometimes just for fun.

That is probably why President Eduard Shevardnadze looked so shaken after the two-hour-long tête-à-tête meeting with Putin, though the terms of “normalization” Putin dictated were by no means excessively harsh. It appears possible to venture a guess that the Old Fox from Georgia has received a “black spot” relegating him to the club of ex-presidents. Eleven years after the demise of the Soviet Union, this sad club does not yet have a half dozen members: Yeltsin, Kravchuk, Ter-Petrossian, and who else? Well, yes, Snegur.

Shevardnadze’s fundamental problem is his inability to organize a smooth transition of power and, apparently, Putin has kindly offered to relieve him of this burden and install a Russia-friendly successor. Ailing President Haidar Aliev may be the next in line, but for now Moscow’s leverage vis-à-vis Azerbaijan is probably not enough to enforce a solution here. And it is not the oil per se that gives Baku a bit more breathing space than the others; Russia has quickly become a confident player in the international oil gambits and advertises its potential quite aggressively, for instance at the “energy summit” in Houston in early October.

It is the debilitating military weakness, aggravated by the Chechen situation, that severely limits Moscow’s options in expanding its influence. Providing a political solution for Chechnya is found (or a Stalinist victory is achieved) and a meaningful military reform is advanced (admittedly, a serious stretch), Russia will be able to combine the strategies of manipulating conflicts and presidents. The CIS would then evolve into a command-and-control type of structure, with Putin the “Europeanizer” instructing the other presidents on running their respective domains.

Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).