Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin Restricts Russian Foreign Ministry’s Role in CIS Countries

Paul Goble

Baku, May 15 – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has created a new Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, an institution that will limit the role of the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow’s relationships with CIS countries, give Russia yet another channel to influence them, and slow Russia’s acceptance of the former Soviet republics as truly independent states.
When Putin announced the structure of his new cabinet, most commentaries focused on the large number of deputy premiers, the possibility that this or that official would be promoted to fill one of these posts, and the consequences his actions are likely to have on the cohabitation of Putin and his hand-picked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev.
But one of his actions, which so far has attracted less attention, may prove to be more significant than many of the others, at least in terms of Moscow’s relationship with the 11 other former Soviet republics that, together with the Russian Federation, form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
That was Putin’s announcement of the creation within his government of a Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, a body that the prime minister did not describe but some of whose functions and probably consequences have now been outlined by Mikhail Aleksandrov, a specialist at the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries (
The Moscow analyst told the Rosbalt news agency that Putin’s action was an entirely “expected” move. Earlier this year, members of the Duma CIS Committee called for creating “a state institution which would involve itself with the problems of the commonwealth” in ways that other government institutions find it difficult or impossible to do.
“By its very nature,” Aleksandrov said, “the foreign ministry is not in a position to cope with definite aspects of work on the space of the CIS. It is involved with inter-state, political, and to a certain degree economic relations. But that leaves untouched an enormous spectrum of relations.”
Among these functions, he continued, are work with NGOs, humanitarian organizations, and human rights, issues that are “usually not the subject of the [Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs].”
The Duma deputies said and Putin apparently agrees that it would desirable for Russia to have “an organ which will constantly in a working regime be occupied with these questions” and what is particularly important have “its own budget,” something the foreign ministry has never provided people working on these questions.
Among the officials likely to staff this agency, Aleksandrov said, are people at the Russian Center for Work with Compatriots Abroad (Roszarubezhtsentr), as well as other experts on CIS affairs “who have been working on the problems of the community,” rather than “government bureaucrats who have not earlier been directly involved” in these issues.
The Moscow analyst denied that this action represented an effort by Moscow to “breathe new life” into the CIS. And he said that the new agency will be created “attached to” the foreign ministry, lest it compete with that institution as the Russian CIS Ministry which existed in the 1990s sometimes did.
Indeed, Aleksandrov recalled, when there were both a Russian foreign ministry and a Russian CIS ministry, “the ambassadors of the community at times did not know where to go” and the two institutions often offered the Russian government very different assessments of the situation in the CIS.
But “this will not happen now,” he insisted. Instead, the new agency will have the status of a department within the foreign ministry, be subordinate to the foreign minister and work with him “in tandem” – the preferred Moscow term for the arrangement between Putin and Medvedev – “for the achievement of common goals.”
However, for both the reasons that some have speculated that tensions between the two Russian leaders will emerge and even more the specific functions that this agency appears likely to have, the new organ is likely to play a role that will have a serious and possibly negative impact on relations between Moscow and the leaders of the CIS states.
First, whatever Aleksandrov says, the new agency almost certainly will limit the role of the foreign ministry in the formulation and implementation of Moscow’s policies in the CIS, a limitation that will open the way for other agencies in the Russian government – such as the FSB – to play a far larger role.
Second, this agency will give Moscow yet another channel to influence and possibly interfere with the internal affairs of the CIS countries, one not limited by the normal rules of diplomatic activity and thus one that will allow a vastly more invasive Russian presence than even Moscow’s embassies have sought.
And third, this new agency both reflects and will reinforce the unwillingness of many in the Russian government and Russian society to view the CIS countries as countries, as independent states with which Moscow must interact in the same way that it does with other countries around the world.
On the one hand, this new organ will encourage those Russian nationalists who have not accepted the demise of the Soviet empire, leading them to think that Putin’s government has given yet another signal that whatever it says in public to outsiders, it remains committed to some kind of imperial restoration.
And on the other – and this may be the most pernicious aspect of the new organ – it recreates the approach the Soviet government pursued toward bloc countries. Embassies in those states and policies about them were the exclusive domain of the Party leadership; professional diplomats had not say, not even the limited one they had elsewhere.
Such an arrangement will thus encourage Russian officials to continue to view the CIS governments as something less than fully independent states, an approach that may encourage Russian adventurism but could also infuriate many non-Russians and lead one or more of the countries in the CIS to think about leaving.

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