Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Yeltsin’s CIS Decree: An Instrument for Regaining Russia’s Superpower Status

by Kathleen Mihalisko

On September 14, President Boris Yeltsin issued an importantand wide-ranging decree on "The Establishment of the StrategicCourse of the Russian Federation with Member States of the CIS."Although its significance has been largely overlooked by the Americanmedia–generating, for instance, only a brief reference in a WashingtonTimes editorial (1)–the eight-page document is replete withimplications for the evolution of relations with Moscow and theformer satellite republics. It crystallizes Russia’s responseto the prospect of NATO expansion and lends credence to recentwarnings from Yeltsin and his officials about the reemergenceof two rival military blocs in Europe.

The Strategic Course has been described as an outgrowth ofa report by the External Intelligence Service entitled "Russia-CIS:Is the West’s Position in Need of Adjustment?" (2) The reporturged a more concerted effort to forge a unified Commonwealthdefense structure based on the 1992 Tashkent collective securityaccord. As with so many other inter-CIS initiatives, the accord’sintegrity has suffered from greatly diverging interests and levelsof commitment ranging from strong (Russia, Armenia, Tajikistanand, lately, Belarus) to questionable (Azerbaijan, Georgia, andmuch of Central Asia) to outright rejection of the pact (Moldova,Turkmenistan and Ukraine). Yeltsin’s decree not only acts on theExternal Intelligence recommendation but goes much further byinstructing executive organs to prosecute an all-inclusive subordinationof policies throughout the Commonwealth to Moscow’s "vitalinterests," in what amounts to a clarion call to restoreRussian might in its traditional imperial context.

While many of the objectives set forth in Yeltsin’s decree havepreviously appeared in some form under the general banner of "CISintegration," never before have they been assembled in sucha comprehensive format and given the force of presidential edict.What follows is a detailed summary (3) accompanied by some briefcomments.

Under the heading, "Goals and Basic Tasks of the StrategicCourse," two central ideas are that Russia’s vital interestsare concentrated on the territory of the CIS, and that the essenceof Russia’s relations with the CIS are "an important factor"in the former’s position vis-à-vis the international community.According to Yeltsin, those vital interests encompass the economy,defense and security as well as "the rights of Russians,the guarantee of which forms the basis of the country’s nationalsecurity" [emphasis supplied here and below]. This pointis taken up later, in a manner suggesting that Russia will notshrink from coercing or destabilizing the countries along itsperiphery to achieve its aims. Indeed, although relevant organsare encouraged to forge "mutual compromises" with theirCIS partners when policies conflict, what is perhaps most importantis Yeltsin’s instruction that they be "firmly guided bythe principle of intolerance of damage to Russia’s interests"in developing relations with Commonwealth states.

The goal of these relations is to create "an economicallyand politically integrated alliance of states capable of achievinga worthy place in world society." Furthermore, Russia isto assume the role of "the leading power in the formationof a new system of inter-state political and economic relationsover the territory of the post-Soviet expanse." Clearlyat issue here is the transformation of the Commonwealth into avehicle for the recuperation of Moscow’s superpower status.

Another important point–especially in light of Russia’s callto the OSCE on September 22 to reassess the principle of nationalself-determination against a state’s higher priority of maintainingterritorial integrity–is that, according to the decree, "effectivecooperation with the CIS states" is also a factor in "opposingcentrifugal tendencies in Russia itself."

Section II of the decree is devoted to "Economic Cooperation,"but despite that benevolent appellation, the Strategic Coursemaps out a vision for the reabsorption of the CIS economies intothat of Russia. Nowhere is it suggested that market mechanismsregulate trade and economic ties among the newly independent states.Prescribed, instead, is a program of unions, "common expanses,"and mergers of interests.

The first category consists of three interlocking types whichalready exist on paper if unevenly in practice: the EconomicUnion, Customs Union, and Payments Union. More detail is reservedin the document for the second of these, whose expansion is deemed"one of the primary means to organizationally strengthenthe CIS." Gradually, it insists, participants in the EconomicUnion should be drawn into the Customs Union so that the latterultimately includes all states "tied to Russia by theirdeeply integrated economy and strategic political partnership."This is an offer that individual members may not be able to refuse.While the Interparliamentary Assembly of CIS States is mentionedas the preferred forum to develop the normative aspects of economicintegration, a state’s failure to adhere to "the model proposedby Russia" could have consequences in terms of "thescale of economic, political, and military support from Russia."

Also in the cards is "the acceleration of practical stepstoward the formation of a Payments Union" to establish commonforeign currency regulations and exchange rates, convertible nationalcurrencies, and, eventually, use of the Russian ruble as a reservecurrency.

No less important to the achievement of Russian strategic aimsare the creation, on the one hand, of "a common scientific-technologicalexpanse" together with "transnational industrial, scientific-technical,and related structures;" and on the other, of "commoninter-state investment programs" and, in the future, "acommon capital market." Major responsibility for this agendais given to the Inter-State Economic Committee of the CIS EconomicUnion.

As noted earlier, Yeltsin’s decree underscores three pillarsof the national interest: the economy, defense and security, andthe safeguarding of ethnic Russian rights. Accordingly, SectionIII concerns "National Security" and Section IV, "HumanitarianCooperation and Human Rights." It would be a mistake to regardthe three as existing in separate categories, however. All flowinto the overarching objective of redressing what some Russiansources call "the global strategic imbalance" generatedby the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the implementation of conventionaland nuclear arms reduction agreements, and–to use a phrase borrowedfrom the Russian nationalist lexicon–NATO’s "Drang nachOsten." (4) Economic, scientific, and capital fundsintegration is, therefore, necessary to rev up Moscow’s militarymachine to achieve parity once again with the West. And, as thedecree manifestly suggests, the mobilization of large Russianminorities in the "near abroad" will be brought to bearagainst recalcitrant CIS states if all else fails.

The Strategic Course specifically addresses the fundamentalsof the anticipated Defense Union on the basis of the Tashkentaccord. It foresees, to begin with, the negotiation of bilateralagreements to preserve "objects of the military infrastructure,"and, in case of mutual interest, "their transition tothe principle of military bases without neglecting the guaranteedlegal status of Russian military bases, servicemen and their familieslocated in [the given CIS] states." At the same timeit is necessary to ensure the CIS states "fulfill their obligationsto refrain from participation in unions and blocs that are directedagainst any one of their fellow member states," in otherwords, no agreement with NATO at Russia’s expense.

A great deal of priority is attached to positioning Russian bordertroops along the external boundaries of the CIS states, with aneye toward the eventual establishment of a "unified borderdefense system." Simultaneous to that is a desired "redefinitionof Russian Federation borders with all continuous states . . .taking into account that Russia’s Long-Range plans are best servedin conditions of open borders within the CIS." One neednot read between the lines to see this as an anticipated expansionof Russia’s border to the previous boundaries of the Soviet Union.

Critical, too, is the notion that while the participation ofinternational organizations such as the UN and OSCE in regulatingconflicts on CIS territory is desirable, it appears to be contingenton their recognition of the Commonwealth as Russia’s legitimate"sphere of interest." Finally, but no less significantly,Russia intends to pursue greater cooperation among CIS intelligenceand security services "with the overall goal of barringfrom CIS territory the activities of third-country special servicesinimical to Russia."

A corresponding aim, presented later in a short section on the"Coordination of Activities in the Resolution of InternationalIssues," strives toward the creation of a united Commonwealthfront vis-à-vis the UN, OSCE, NATO, the European Union,and the Council of Europe. As a matter of fact, one need lookno farther than Belarus to see how this and other principles enshrinedin Yeltsin’s decree have been applied for some time in practice.From President Lukashenko’s denunciations of the West’s bombardmentof Serbian positions in Bosnia to the arrival of Russian trooppatrols under the terms of the bilateral Customs Union agreement,Belarus is the best operative example of the Strategic Course–withgood reason, given its shared border with a potential NATO country.Almost all major developments in Belarus under Lukashenko’s fourteenth-month-oldstewardship can and should be understood from this perspective.Moreover, in view of his recent visits to Moldova and Ukraine,the Belarusian leader is fast emerging as the chief non-Russianpromoter of Russia’s "vital interests."

It is interesting, in conclusion, to examine the section on humanitarianissues, which pertains to "ethnic, cultural, linguistic andreligious" guarantees for national minorities in the "nearabroad." The decree warns that violations of the rights ofRussians in the CIS states will possibly jeopardize "financial,economic, military-political and other forms of cooperation withRussia," and that observance of the rights and interestsof Russians will play a role in determining this level of cooperation.Given the actual record so far, there is reason to take thesestatements as an ominous sign indeed.

The decree also calls for the continued guaranteed receptionof Russian electronic and print media over CIS territory. Morerevealing, however, is its assertion that "special attentionmust be paid to Russia’s position as the primary educational centeron post-Soviet territory, requiring, as such, that the younggeneration of the CIS be raised in the spirit of friendly relationswith Russia."

Yeltsin’s September 14 decree warrants significantly more commentaryand reflection than space allows here. Nevertheless, one lastobservation is in order. Russia cannot hope to revive a super-stateunder its control without the participation of Kiev; such ambitionsare meaningless if Ukraine is absent from the equation. But fornow and the foreseeable future, Ukraine’s resolve to defend itsindependence is beyond dispute. What lies ahead? Will it be swallowedby Russian strategic designs or provide the main obstacle to theirrealization? It stands to reason that Western interests lie inthe latter alternative.


1.Washington Times, September 22, 1995.

2. Moskovskie novosti, September 17-24, 1995.

3. Based on the full original text of Decree No. 940, September14, 1995.

4. Pravda, September 23, 1995

Kathleen Mihalisko is a longtime specialist on Belarus whoearlier worked as a Senior Analyst at Radio Liberty.