Thursday, February 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Strength of CIS Lies in Its Weakness,’ Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 21 – As the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States assembly in Moscow today, a Russian deputy foreign minister is seeking to make a virtue out of something that many observers have long viewed as that organization’s most fundamental problem.
In an interview published in Vremya today, Andrey Denisov, Russia’s first deputy minister of foreign affairs, said that “the strength of the CIS lies in its weaknesses” because they allow for the flexibility that a stricter set of arrangements would not permit (
Denisov said that “one need not hurry to bury the CIS,” even though two of its members, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, deny its legal authority. That is because even their leaders continue to participate in its deliberations and accept some of its accords, as do most of the others most of the time.
Indeed, the senior Russian diplomat suggested, “the CIS is not a structure designed to promote integration structure but rather a forum of historically connected states.” And it will be useful and continue to survive as long as everyone keeps that reality in mind.
Some of the member states will want closer economic, political or military ties, Denisov continued, and that is something many in the Russian Federation will welcome. But even those who like Ukraine and Georgia who say they want to join NATO can still have a seat at the CIS table.
“We respect the right of any member of the CIS to seek the realization of its interests in other international organizations or more narrow groupings.” And GUAM, although it remains “amorphous,” is one of those, even as it acquires a more “institutionalized” foundation.
In making a virtue of what many see as a fundamental defect, Denisov is in fact laying the groundwork for the future. On the one hand, his comments suggest that Moscow may now be forced to accept behavior in its so-called “near abroad” that its leaders have routinely insisted they would not.
And on the other, by laying out such a tolerant position, the Russian deputy foreign minister is providing a justification for those in the non-Russian countries to remain within the CIS and thus reducing pressures in some of the capitals for a quick exit.
To the extent that this message is received, Denisov’s comments today may in fact mean that the CIS will continue well into the future – but they also mean that it is likely to decline in importance for most purposes however much some in the Russian capital would prefer otherwise.

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