Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 4

The CIS summit in Minsk highlights differences among the 12 member states rather than agreement

A CIS Summit Of Diminished Expectations

by Vladimir Socor

The May 14 referendum in Belarus, interpreted by that country’spresident as a mandate for tighter integration and eventual unificationwith Russia, has failed to produce any momentum among the othercountries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. But the CISsummit, coincidentally to be held in Minsk May 26-27, acquiressome added interest because of that vote. The agenda of the meeting,and its likely outcome, reflect both Moscow’s effort to regainat least some effective control over the newly independent states,and the resistance of most of those states to the reimpositionof such control.

Scheduled for May 26-27 and preceded by a meeting of foreign ministersMay 25, this meeting of the presidents of the 12 CIS countriesis due to take up 22 economic, political, and military issues.Virtually all of these are Russian initiatives, with the actualagenda developed in advance by the Russian-dominated CIS permanentstaff. That staff is headed by Belarusian official Ivan Korotchenya,a passionate advocate of close ties with Moscow. Leaders of theother countries attending such meetings in the past have beenreduced to reacting to Russian initiatives and often with littleor no advance notice as to their content.

The Minsk summit agenda as announced includes a number of sensitiveitems likely to reverberate beyond the CIS area: the extensionof "peace-keeping" mandates in Abkhazia and Tajikistan,a proposal for the establishment of common protection of the bordersbetween CIS member states and other countries, the possible organizationof a collective security system, a proposed expansion of the prerogativesof the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly, and a statement on humanrights and freedoms in CIS states, geared, according to Korotchenya’sannouncement, "to the situation of the Russian-speaking populationoutside Russia." Some of these will attract the support ofmany of the countries; others will not. The last is likely tobe accepted as a binding convention by some but as a non-bindingdeclaration by others. In addition to these issues, the summitis likely to approve the appointment of Russian Deputy Prime MinisterSergey Shakhrai as the head of a CIS Council for Information,part of a Moscow-led effort to create a "common informationspace" across the twelve countries.

Earlier CIS summits have often had equally ambitious agendas,but none have lived up to Moscow’s public expectations. Moscow’sexpectations remain high: Korotchenya told Russian televisionMay 18 "You understand perfectly well what this is all about:a single army, a single border system, a single economic space."But he conceded that "none of this has come about."He and Moscow thus hoped that Belarus would lead the way to thisfuture. And Belarusian leaders may in fact try to do so. In 1994,Minsk signed on to Moscow’s plan for the "joint protectionof CIS external borders"–in this case, Belarusian borderswith Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. This year, Minsk entered acommon customs union with the Russian Federation. As a result,Russian customs officers began to man Belarusian borders withthese non-CIS countries, and with Ukraine as well. Now, Minskis citing the referendum results to justify the restoration ofthe supremacy of Russian over the country’s native language.

At present, no other country in the Commonwealth would willinglyaccept such a far reaching abdication of sovereignty, even ifsome presidents may be pressured to move in that direction. Nordo any major political constituencies for such a policy existin most of the countries. In Ukraine, for example, pro-Moscowgroups which hailed the Belarusian referendum, and urged Ukraineto follow suit, found themselves almost totally isolated evenin the eastern, more russified portion of the country. (Crimeais a special case and plans to hold its own referendum in June.)

The position of Ukraine is especially instructive on this pointbecause that country has long been regarded as especially vulnerableto falling into Russia’s orbit. One might have expected the Belarusianexample to find a resonance in Ukraine. But the impact of theBelarus voting has been very different. In addition to the questionof the fate of the Black Sea fleet, on which Kiev has been firm,Ukraine recently has further distanced itself from Russia on twodecisive issues. In the runup to the CIS summit, Ukraine turneddown Moscow’s suggestion that it become a full member of the CISeconomic union. Ukraine is now only an observer in that body.On May 17, Ukraine’s foreign ministry argued that joining theCIS economic union would limit its ability to gain admission toother international economic groupings, restrict Ukraine’s abilityto trade with the West, would alienate Ukraine from the countriesof Central Europe, and would affect the world’s perception ofUkraine as an independent country. And on May 25, Ukraine signeda free trade agreement with Estonia, a country that is not partof the CIS.

Moreover, Ukraine took yet another step away from Moscow in therunup to this summit. Speaking in Latvia May 23, Ukrainian PresidentLeonid Kuchma said that Ukraine should abandon the policy of nonalignment,and should adjust to the expansion of NATO. Kuchma joined LatvianPresident Guntis Ulmanis in recognizing that threats and pressuresfrom a certain "bordering state" were leading ever morecountries to seek to join stable political alliances such as NATO.While Ukrainian officials conceded that early Ukrainian membershipin the Western defense alliance was "unrealistic," Ukraine’sshift to the West has become evident. As Kuchma spoke, Americanand Ukrainian forces were conducting their first-ever joint exercisenear the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Security issues are also introducing strains in the relationshipbetween Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on the one hand, and Moscowon the other. Despite their substantial economic dependence onRussia, the two countries are now pressing Moscow’s protégégovernment in Tajikistan to make political concessions to theTajik opposition and end the war. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan contributetroops to the Russian-led CIS peace-keeping forces there, andincreasingly are unwilling to bear the economic and human losses.In the last month and in anticipation of Russian demands for anextension of this mandate, the presidents of these two countriesjointly warned that they would withdraw their respective contingentsunless Dushanbe comes to terms with the opposition.

Moscow has been more successful in pushing its security agendain the Transcaucasus. It has obtained basing rights and agreements,on both joint protection of borders and an integrated air defense,from Armenia, which is indebted to Moscow for its victories inKarabakh, and from Georgia, which knows that it can only hopeto regain its territorial integrity with Russian consent. Besetby both ethnic and political challenges, Georgian president EduardShevardnadze apparently believes that his only option is to allowRussia to become the arbiter of Georgian domestic affairs. Herecently asked the Russian peacekeeping force in Abkhazia to assumepolice functions as well, an obvious retreat on sovereignty. Withthe Abkhaz similarly dependent on Moscow, the renewal of the symbolicCIS peacekeeping mandate for Russian actions there seems a foregoneconclusion.

Only Azerbaijan now holds out against Russian pressure. And onthe eve of the CIS summit, President Heidar Aliyev reaffirmedhis country’s determination to proceed with the multi-billionCaspian oil deal with Western countries. Moscow has tried variousstratagems to shoot that deal down.

In sum, the CIS summit in Minsk is unlikely to mark a major stepforward for Russian integrationist plans. Moscow appears to recognizethis, and to have lowered its expectations: Although the meetingis scheduled to last two days, Boris Yeltsin announced that hewould spend less than a full day there.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation