Monday, February 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: CIS Now an Optional Alliance for Its Members, New Russian Study Says

Paul Goble

Baku, February 11 – The Commonwealth of Independent States has the same number of members it had at its start, something its backers always note, but each of them now decides which of its activities to participate in and to what degree, according to a detailed new study prepared by a historian in the Russian Academy of Sciences.
And because its members exercise those options regularly, Lev Moskvin argues, the CIS has not been able to solve “the overwhelming majority of the problems standing before it” or make progress toward becoming an effective alternative to the European Union (
But the fact that it has survived for more than 15 years, he writes in The CIS: Disintegration or Rebirth? The Review 15 Years Later (in Russian, Moscow, 2007), means that the CIS must be serving someone’s interests and that it thus could under certain conditions develop in the direction that its creators hoped.
The comparison with the EU that informs Moskvin’s study is not entirely fair, as reviewer Yevgeniy Grigor’yev points out in the current issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Ex Libris. On the one hand, the EU of today is the product of more than 50 years of efforts while the CIS has not yet reached 20.
And on the other, the EU reflects a desire on the part of its members, all of whom were independent before joining it, to find a basis for cooperation, whereas the CIS was created in response to the collapse of empire, with some of the new states wanting to work to develop closer relations but others hoping only that it would be a divorce court.
Nonetheless, Grigor’yev concurs with Moskvin’s point that because the CIS has not yet had any “cardinal successes” in integrating its members and thus has not entered “into the consciousness” of people living in them, there is not much reason to expect that it will become Eurasia’s answer to the EU
As Moskvin shows, all “the arguments, contradictions, and conflicts” among the CIS countries that existed 15 years ago survive and in many cases have intensified or even increased in number. And that means that celebrations of its survival are just that – of its survival and not its development.
“Officially,” there are 12 member countries, just as there were in the first years, Moskvin writes, and “their leaders from time to time” continue to get together. But that much ballyhooed public face of this grouping conceals the freedom each has to define what its participation means at any particular time.
“Depending on their interests, the particular features of their develop, their situation, views, policies and a multitude of other considerations,” Grigor’yev sums up Moskvin’s argument, “each participant of the CIS decided in which integration processes and forms to take part in or not and if yes then to what degree.”
But nonetheless, it has “survived.” In part this reflects simple inertia. Many of its members find it easier to continue to take part in CIS meetings and ignore any decisions they don’t like than to risk the reaction they might provoke by actually leaving an institution for which some of them have so little respect.
In addition, the survival of the CIS reflects the attitudes of Western governments which in general believe that efforts at regional integration are almost always a good thing. Indeed, the United States took the lead in forcing Georgia to join the CIS against the will of its government and people at the time.
But the fate of the CIS “depends” to a remarkable degree on Russian policies. In the past, as Moskvin shows, the Russian government regularly insisted that its relations with “the near abroad” were a priority, but it was far less active there than many Western governments have been and thus allowed the CIS to drift.
Over the last three or four years, Moskvin insists, that has begun to change, and the Russian government is now devoting more “pragmatic” attention to its neighbors, something that has facilitated the rise of a number of smaller but more tightly integrated groupings within the post-Soviet region.
There is “the Union state” of Russia and Belarus, a collective security group and the European-Asian Economic Union, and there will soon be a customs union. None of these include all 12 of the CIS members, but the continuing existence of the alliance means that Moscow and those who share its views can push for their expansion.
Given the clearly expressed views of Ukraine, Georgia and several other CIS members about their desire to join NATO and the EU, many analysts have argued that these partial groupings of CIS states are an indication not of its vitality but rather its death throws.
But Moskvin argues that this “multi-level system of integration” now on view could, under just the right circumstances, lead to “a single fully-formed Eurasian Union” – something like the EU. But in saying this, Grigor’yev concludes, Moskvin is displaying “optimism but no conviction.”

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