Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 24

Russia’s domestic struggles continued over the past fortnight as a fleeting visit to the Kremlin by Boris Yeltsin produced yet another shakeup of the presidential administration. Neither the personnel reshuffle nor Yeltsin’s call for a renewed battle against corruption appeared to do much to improve the country’s political or economic situation, however. Moscow’s domestic political problems, not surprisingly, also served to hamstring efforts by Russian leaders to stem the organizational disintegration of the CIS. But the same paralysis was not evident in Moscow’s diplomatic dealings with the “far abroad,” where Russian diplomats maintained an assertive stance on a number of key international issues.


President Boris Yeltsin has demonstrated once again that the rumors of his political death are greatly exaggerated. On December 7 the Russian head of state left the Central Clinical Hospital, where he was recuperating from pneumonia, for the Kremlin. Once there, he promptly fired Valentin Yumashev, his chief of staff, along with three deputy heads of the presidential administration. Yeltsin thanked Yumashev for his services, but said the Kremlin was being run poorly and was in need of “firm discipline, order and reform.” He also announced that he was taking control of the justice ministry and tax police, bringing the number of agencies and ministries under his direct subordination to fifteen.

Yeltsin’s spin doctors said that the president’s measures had been taken in order to step up the fight against “corruption, economic crime and separatism.” Yeltsin’s choice to replace Yumashev–Nikolai Bordyuzha, a general who was (and remains) secretary of Yeltsin’s Security Council and who previously held top posts in the Federal Border guards Service and the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information–suggested the president had decided the Kremlin, indeed, needed some military discipline. Yeltsin, perhaps, also felt that the country at large was ready, if not yearning, for some of that sort of discipline following the shocking murder of Democratic Russia leader Galina Starovoitova. Russians have also recently witnessed the open attempts of criminal groups to steal St. Petersburg’s legislative elections and the open defiance of Moscow by regional bosses like Kalmykia’s Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. There has also been continued anarchy in the Caucasus, where Russian forces in Dagestan and North Ossetia were attacked, and in Chechnya, where four Western hostages were beheaded.

The communist-dominated State Duma, meanwhile, apparently sensing opportunity in the growing power vacuum, passed a nonbinding resolution to re-erect the statue of Soviet secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky. The monument had been removed following the abortive coup by Soviet hard-liners in August 1991. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, putatively a communist “moderate,” called for the re-institution of “katorga”–the penal servitude of the Tsarist and Soviet past.

These actions alone should have been enough to convince Yeltsin of the need to reassert his authority. Given, however, that Yeltsin’s top priority has always been to divide and rule Russia’s competing power brokers, it is likely that the president’s primary aim was to put an end to his own administration’s increasingly open talk about both his declining physical powers and the allegedly reduced role Yeltsin would assume in the run up to the next presidential vote. Indeed, in announcing the Kremlin shake-up, Yeltsin said that he would play the role of “guarantor of the Constitution” until 2000, and he made it clear this role would be anything but ceremonial.

Yeltsin also pointedly reminded one and all that Russia’s “power ministries”–the armed forces, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service … in short, the guys with the guns–were subordinated to him and to him alone. According to some observers, Yumashev’s removal was also a warning to Boris Berezovsky not to get too big for his britches. The financier and CIS executive secretary is said to possess compromising information on the Yeltsin family finances. Yeltsin, nevertheless, cannot decree good health. It was emblematic that, after spending three hours handing his wayward aides their heads, he returned to the hospital. And while Bordyuzha promised a crack-down on corruption–to include “the highest echelons of power”–veteran Kremlin-watchers recalled that Yeltsin had promised the same many times before.


On top of all of this, the prospects for the economy continued to look gloomy. Michel Camdessus, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), came to Moscow and left with the little more than a smile and a handshake. The government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, meanwhile, continued to promise a strict 1999 budget as a way, first, to convince the IMF that it was serious about getting its financial house in order and, second, to convince international creditors to restructure Russia’s huge debt. But a number of observers said that they strongly doubted such a budget would survive intact the stampede of lobbyists in the Duma’s halls.

The one point of light on an otherwise gloomy horizon was the St. Petersburg legislative assembly elections. Despite the attempts by criminal groups to lie, cheat and intimidate their way into local power, the first round of voting in Russia’s second city yielded a strong showing by Grigory Yavlinsky’s reformist Yabloko movement and the bloc led by veteran anticorruption fighter Yuri Boldyrev.


Despite the ongoing problems at home and the urgent need to win additional financial backing from the West, Russia remained assertive and active on the international stage over the past fortnight. Russian diplomats and government officials told Japan to forget about any quick solution to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, successfully countered efforts by the United States and European countries to condemn Belgrade for the ongoing bloodshed in Kosovo, renewed criticism of NATO enlargement and slammed plans mooted by Washington which would expand NATO’s scope of operations, and reiterated Moscow’s intention to step up nuclear cooperation with Iran despite new objections from Washington. Moscow also hosted a four-day visit by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz during which the two sides renewed calls for a quick lifting of sanctions against Baghdad.

On the Kuril Islands territorial issue, Moscow appeared on December 2 to end months of public waffling by stating directly that Russia and Japan could not possibly resolve their decades-long dispute by the year 2000. Russia’s ambassador to Japan, Aleksandr Panov, also said that intensive efforts by the two countries to conclude a peace treaty by 2000 should not be interpreted by Tokyo as a Russian commitment to resolving the territorial issue in the same time frame. In a remarkably blunt message, Panov urged Japanese leaders to speak frankly to the Japanese people and to stop feeding them the “illusion” of an early solution to the territorial dispute.

Russia and Japan agreed last year to seek agreement on a peace treaty by the year 2000. Japanese leaders have repeatedly linked peace treaty negotiations to resolution of the territorial issue. They have also linked progress on the territorial question, albeit implicitly, to promises of financial aid for Russia and to increased Japanese investment in Russia’s Far East.


During a foreign ministers meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Oslo on December 2, and again during a gathering of the Russian-NATO Permanent Joint Council in Brussels on December 9, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov took aim at the NATO military alliance. Ivanov restated Russian calls for an enhancement of the OSCE’s European security role and a concomitant reduction of NATO’s authority. He also criticized proposals being forwarded by the United States which would broaden NATO’s mandate to operate outside its territory and make operations by the alliance less dependent on authorization from the UN Security Council. A number of European countries are uncomfortable with the U.S. proposals.

At the December 2 OSCE meeting Russian intransigence also ensured that a statement issued by the fifty-four nation group was a bland one which failed either to blame Yugoslav and Serb authorities for the bloodshed in Kosovo or to identify ethnic Albanians as the primary victims of the violence. On December 3-4 Russian defense and Foreign Ministry officials protested the arrest of Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic by troops of NATO’s Stabilization Force. Krstic was delivered to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council meeting on December 9 was reported to have been an especially warm one during which both sides celebrated eighteen months of cooperation and looked forward to more joint activities in the new year. The congratulatory statements in Brussels could not hide the fact, however, that cooperation between Russia and NATO has in fact proceeded at a far slower pace than had been hoped for by the West. Ivanov’s failure to respond to an invitation–extended by NATO to Russia–to attend the alliance’s fiftieth anniversary in April reflected some of the ongoing differences between the two sides. Moscow is loathe to attend a ceremony at which three former Soviet bloc countries will be welcomed into NATO.


The December 9 Permanent Joint Council meeting also provided an occasion for Russia and the United States to clash anew over Moscow’s close ties to Iran. The United States has long criticized Russia for aiding Iranian ballistic missile development efforts and for cooperation between the two countries in the area of nuclear energy. More recently there have been allegations that Russian scientists are involved in Iranian efforts to develop biological weapons. Albright used the December 9 meeting to warn Ivanov that continued Russian-Iranian cooperation in these areas could threaten U.S. aid to Russian scientists.

Moscow apparently brushed off the warnings. On December 9 Russia’s atomic energy minister publicly criticized U.S. interference in Russian-Iranian nuclear dealings. He also reiterated Moscow’s hopes of reaching agreement on additional nuclear construction projects in Iran. Moscow is currently building a US$800 million nuclear power plant at the Bushehr site in southern Iran.


The seventh anniversary of the CIS on December 8 was ignored in most member countries and was barely acknowledged even by the would-be hegemon–Russia–now in the throes of economic and political crisis. The Kremlin announced that Russian President Boris Yeltsin had found the time and stamina for a meeting with his Belarusan counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but Moscow postponed yet again an already overdue CIS summit. Shortly before the December 8 anniversary, moreover, a meeting of the CIS countries’ prime ministers turned out to be a milestone along the organization’s downward path.


The prime ministers of CIS countries, meeting on November 25 in Moscow, turned down CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky’s plan to centralize the organization with himself at its head. Since his appointment by the Kremlin to the CIS post last April, Berezovsky has waged a losing campaign to seize control of CIS structures from the Russian government and from the existing CIS bureaucracy. His latest scheme envisaged:

–Instituting a “single coordinating center” of the CIS in Berezovsky’s Executive Secretariat, to be turned from a staff organ into a powerful policymaking and supervisory body renamed the Executive Committee (EC), with Berezovsky as chairman. The EC chairman would communicate directly and regularly with the Presidents of CIS countries on policy matters. He (“or she,” Berezovsky added as a self-denying afterthought) would be confirmed by the presidents for three-year renewable terms in that post.

–Eliminating a host of redundant CIS agencies and merging others into Berezovsky’s EC, so as to “unite the economic, political, and other sectors under a single roof.” Slated for subordination to the EC were the Interstate Economic Committee (MEK, the stillborn executive authority of the never-born CIS Economic Union), the Coordinating Staff for Military Cooperation, the Staff of the Border Troops’ Commanders’ Council, the Collective Security Council (intended to oversee implementation of the dead-letter CIS Collective Security Treaty), a number of other more-or-less idle agencies, and a proposed CIS Committee on Conflict Situations. Berezovsky’s plan sought to breathe life into those agencies for the sake of recreating a “viable CIS.”

Along with centralization, Berezovsky offered the doubtful incentive of a CIS-wide “free-trade area” (or several regional “free-trade areas”) with low or no customs tariffs and preferential transport arrangements for member countries, to the detriment of non-CIS countries. He argued that Russia’s financial crisis and the shrinkage of its foreign trade could be turned into an opportunity to expand intra-CIS trade. According to Berezovsky, the CIS countries’ interest in regaining access to the Russian market converges at this stage with Russia’s need to switch from Western imports to cheaper CIS imports payable through barter.


The presidents of most member countries rejected or sidestepped Berezovsky’s plan in the run-up to the Moscow meeting. Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan submitted official objections to the proposed creation of “supranational structures” endowed with political decision-making powers. Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Petru Lucinschi also insisted on their countries’ full freedom to associate with countries and organizations outside the CIS. Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka simply refused to receive Berezovsky. The gesture demonstrated support for Berezovsky’s political adversaries in Russia, but also expressed Lukashenka’s displeasure with Berezovsky’s plan to transfer the CIS Executive Secretariat and other bodies from Minsk to Moscow.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze offered to support the plan, hoping to stimulate a more active personal intercession by Berezovsky in the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiations. Shevardnadze has counted on Berezovsky’s influence to offset the Russian Foreign Ministry’s pro-Abkhaz stand. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has thus far managed to squash Berezovsky’s diplomatic aspirations. Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev told Berezovsky that “in its current condition the CIS does no good, it only discredits itself…. Certain decisions are imposed from above while the organization is idle.” Aliev called for an emphasis on bilateral relations, as opposed to multilateral relations and structures within the CIS.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov described the reorganization plan as irrelevant to his country because Turkmenistan does not participate in CIS committees and activities in any event. Niazov even declared that “the failure of the CIS to become a reality does not alarm us, it was an impossibility to begin with.” The presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Askar Akaev, supported the “free-trade” aspect of Berezovsky’s initiative while ignoring the proposed organizational streamlining. Those two countries seem in any case unwilling to wait for the Russian market to open up to them. Kyrgyzstan recently became the first CIS country to gain admission to the World Trade Organization, and Kazakhstan seems poised to follow suit. By their readiness to accept WTO rules, both countries are distancing themselves from a hypothetical CIS “free-trade area” and the four-country CIS Customs Union which–as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan regularly complain–exists on paper only.

The country leaders welcomed with a sense of deja-vu the Berezovsky proposal to establish a “free-trade area.” A decision to that effect (with inherent disadvantages to non-CIS countries) had been taken as far back as 1994 and was restated at subsequent CIS summits. Like most CIS decisions, however, it was never implemented, owing in this case partly to Russian protectionism and partly to member countries’ unwillingness to sacrifice their growing economic relations outside the CIS. Yet all CIS countries irrespective of their political attitudes toward Russia continue to demand unimpeded access to the Russian market and transit facilities for their goods.


The Russian government–specifically, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and CIS Cooperation Minister Boris Pastukhov–also opposed Berezovsky’s scheme. They aimed to preserve their own agencies’ powers and to deny Berezovsky a power base usable in Russia’s internal political struggle. Split by the two rifts–one between the Moscow center and member countries and the other between the two Russian groupings–the prime ministers’ meeting proceeded in secrecy and did not produce a communique. Primakov ultimately announced that Berezovsky’s plan was being returned to him for reworking “in coordination with the CIS Interstate Forum.” That forum, a lower-level entity, had earlier turned down Berezovsky’s proposals and is currently preparing a rival plan, one described as “cosmetic” by Berezovsky but supported by the Russian government. Moreover, some member countries have already refused the forum’s draft proposals, mostly on the grounds that the proposals infringe on national sovereignty. In sum, the three actors involved–Berezovsky, the Russian government and the CIS countries defending their sovereignty–are checkmating each other.


The prime ministers’ meeting did create a “working group” to prepare an anti-crisis program that would focus on the following: removing restrictions to intra-CIS trade, facilitating inter-bank and barter settlements and repatriating national currencies. They also signed agreements of intent to create a CIS common agricultural market and to facilitate the transit of agricultural produce. There was no information about follow-up meetings, level of official representation, possible timeframes or mechanisms of realization of either of the two projects. The prime ministers seemed to spend less time and attention discussing these anticrisis measures than they did on the organizational and political wrangles. Creating working groups and signing documents of intent is the traditional CIS way of shelving thorny issues.


The prime ministers’ meeting and the unmarked anniversary highlighted two unprecedented trends in CIS politics, both testifying to the unraveling of this would-be organization. First, Russia’s internal power struggles divided what used to be the Russian side in the CIS. The split enabled most member countries to make common cause temporarily with one Russian side (Primakov’s) against another Russian side (Berezovsky’s). This purely tactical alignment may well change if the Russian government attempts to use the CIS Interstate Forum in the way Berezovsky has sought to use the Executive Committee–namely, as a vehicle for supranational centralization of the CIS. Certain countries–Georgia for one–will probably try again to play off Berezovsky against Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

The other trend involves a stunning conceptual inversion on the part of both Russian groups. During the meeting they described Russia’s economic and financial crisis as the new rationale for “CIS integration.” “The financial-economic crisis is no reason for our countries to switch to other partners. On the contrary, the crisis can stimulate the CIS countries’ economic integration” (Primakov). “The present crisis shows the need for integration and coordination. Let no [CIS] country be under the illusion that it can stand aside from Russia’s crisis” (Pastukhov). “The crisis will spur the CIS countries toward closer integration as misfortune brings people together” (Berezovsky, who also spoke of the “agony of the CIS” in an interview published on the day of the Prime Ministers’ meeting).

Had Russia’s economy prospered, or had it at least functioned acceptably, it would undoubtedly have been described as a magnet for the “integration” of CIS countries. Today, Moscow has nothing better than a crisis to point to as a magnet for integrating the CIS.