Observing the bitter disputes around Russian military bases in Georgia, sour demarches in the State Duma against Moldova, and icy diplomatic exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, it is hard to believe that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is still a functioning organization. As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov recently told the State Duma, the CIS “is experiencing certain difficulties in its development.” But he reassured the parliamentarians that the foreign ministers of all member-states would meet in Minsk on March 18 and approve a decision on “optimizing the work of Commonwealth structures” (Interfax, March 9). Diplomacy aside, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his secretive entourage are now facing the very practical question of how to “optimize” something so obviously dysfunctional.
When he arrived at the Kremlin in early 2000, Putin showed much skepticism towards the CIS. “Pragmatism” was Putin’s key word in those early days, and he duly shifted from Boris Yeltsin’s focus on bilateral relations to keeping neighbors on a shorter leash. While he has never developed any bonding with the “comrade”-leaders (and positively dislikes Russia’s closest “friend” Alexander Lukashenka from Belarus), gradually the sole purpose of the CIS became preserving the neighboring regimes as they slowly but steadily drift away from democracy. Instead of policy coordination, CIS meetings became opportunities to perform some uncomplicated rituals to demonstrate respect and loyalty to Moscow as primus inter pares. After several summits, Putin grew fond of these rituals and entirely abandoned the sensitive issue of protecting “Russian-speakers” in the near abroad.
These cozy relations were spoiled by the Georgian Rose Revolution of November 2003, and Putin saw the need to dispel the building anxiety with some new form of group therapy. The Central Asian networks were expanded, but the key focus became the so-called “Single Economic Space” involving Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. New incentives for ever-closer cooperation were expected to prove their efficiency. Leading this core group with a new confidence, Moscow sought to convince the EU of its value as an “equal partner.” Ukraine was the key test for this strategy, which explains why Russia stormed into the electoral struggle there last November sparing no political ammunition. The defeat in that epic battle was so humiliating and devastating that Moscow is apparently still unable to rethink and adjust its strategy.
Putin’s well-known reluctance to admit mistakes is exacerbated by the buck-passing in his administration, where few care to do their rather unpleasant homework. Alexei Sitnin, head of the department for work with compatriots, was designated the fall guy for the fiasco in Ukraine and fired from the Kremlin. Putin authorized the new larger department on interregional and cultural links with foreign countries to be created under the chief of his administration, Dmitry Medvedev, but the position is still vacant (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 10). Lacking leadership, the Security Council, the Ministry of Defense, and the Foreign Ministry cannot formulate a common position on the issue of Russian bases in Georgia even when hard-pressed by Tbilisi (Kommersant, March 11). Moscow’s hapless attempts to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in Moldova appeared so mismanaged that the State Duma felt obliged to initiate a motion aimed at “punishing” Chisinau. Andrei Kokoshin, the head of the Duma committee on links with compatriots (whom many in the foreign policy community remember as a solid and balanced expert), argued for “tougher measures” against neighbors who dare to defy Moscow’s wishes (Ekho Moskvy, March 4).
Moldova, in fact, did more than just rub salt into Russia’s wounded national pride. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko quickly came to the side of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin as he tries to reshape his Communist base as a pro-Western party. This nascent grouping is moving amazingly fast in shaping a new European agenda (Izvestiya, March 4). Poland is presenting itself as their main advocate and the Baltic trio also provide helping hands. Moscow, meanwhile, is involved in bitter exchanges with Estonia and Lithuania, whose presidents declined the Kremlin’s invitation to attend the pompous celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the victory over Germany (see EDM, March 11) and is outraged by Poland’s suggestion that the murder of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was a “political folly and a serious mistake” (Izvestiya, March 11).
Preparing for the regular trilateral summit with France and Germany scheduled for March 18 in Paris, Putin can only watch as his cherished European agenda based on personal relations with key leaders is hijacked by Yushchenko, who performed impeccably during his visit to Germany capped by a speech to the Bundestag (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 10).
The new Ukrainian leader was careful to mention that, for Ukraine, Russia “is forever a strategic partner,” but Putin was left with few doubts that there would be no more dreams about a single economic space (Strana.ru, March 10). On the way back from Paris, Putin has agreed to stop for a few hours in Kyiv (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 4).
Any breakthrough is unlikely but there is definitely enough time scheduled to announce the disbandment of the CIS. Even conservative commentators in Moscow are pointing out that this post-Soviet structure just does not make any sense in the new Ukrainian political landscape (Globalrus, March 3). The Kremlin, nevertheless, has shown for the last few years much more skill in denial exercises and virtual policy-faking than reality checks. If it is so much easier to pretend that the CIS is working “as usual,” why bother with pragmatism?