Vienna October 8 – Over the last decade, the Commonwealth of Independent States has been reduced to little more than a club of presidents of the 11 and now, after Georgia’s withdrawal, 11 former Soviet republics. But so few presidents are slated to attend the CIS session in Chisinau tomorrow that many are suggesting it is entering its final “death agony.”
And perhaps because the organization that the Russian government had hoped would be central mechanism for ensuring Moscow’s continuing dominance of the region is passing into eclipse, the Russian government is not only relying more heavily on sub-groups of these states such as the Organization of the Collective Security Treat but also dusting off some older tactics.
Among the latter are efforts to reduce the significance of borders between the Russian Federation and its neighbors and thus increase Moscow’s leverage, efforts very much on public view this week when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to Kharkhiv to promote cooperation between regions on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian frontier.
Tomorrow, the CIS is to have a summit meeting in the Moldovan capital, and four of the presidents of the Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have already indicated that they will not attend, announcements that have led Aleksandr Rahr, a Berlin expert on Russia, to suggest that “it is possible to speak about the funeral” of the CIS.
And the absence of so many leaders who are identified as Russia’s closest allies in Chisinau, Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center added, suggested to him that if he were in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s place, he would not take part in this session (www.ng.ru/cis/2009-10-08/1_sng.html?mthree=1).
As the Moscow paper notes, Medvedev is unlikely to follow that suggestion, but the meeting in the Moldovan capital is unlikely to be a happy one: Not only are there tensions between Medvedev and Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko, but the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have indicated they don’t expect much progress on Karabakh during their session.
Since the CIS was created in December 1991, many people have predicted its demise. Indeed, as “Nezavisimaya” noted, “the CIS was thought up” as a kind of “divorce” court, an organization that would help the post-Soviet states simultaneously unpack the connections created in Soviet times and lay the groundwork for a new relationship.
But the comments this time not only in “Nezavisimaya” but in other publications such as “Svobodnaya pressa” (svpressa.ru/politic/article/15169/) and Internet portals like Kasparov.ru (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4ACDBB367E2C8) have been far more uniformly negative in their assessment of the CIS as an organization without a future.
Moscow’s increasing reliance on subgroups of these state, including in particular the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, suggest that an increasing number of officials in the Russian government share that assessment. And that in turn makes what the Russian foreign minister said in Kharkhiv far more important than might otherwise be the case.
In the early 1990s, the Russian government sought to promote expanded contacts between regions of the Russian Federation that had acquired border status because of the independence of neighboring states. But that effort had been largely on the back burner until relatively recently.
Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov travelled to Kharkhiv in Ukraine to meet with the leaders of regions on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border in order to do what he could, in the words of “Rossiiskaya gazeta” to ensure that “political disagreements [between Moscow and Kyiv] stop being a break for economic cooperation.”
This is the second such meeting of these regional heads in recent years – the first took place in Belgorod in October 2007 – and allowed the Russian diplomat to play up the notion that economic cooperation should take precedence over political disagreements and that regional leaders are interested in “concrete actions” (www.rg.ru/2009/10/08/harkov.html).
At the sessions, it was pointed out that the 20 Russian regions closest to the Ukrainian border account for 80 percent of Russian-Ukrainian trade, a pattern that makes such a message of cooperation especially attractive during the economic crisis. Lavrov for his part acknowledged that Moscow’s relations with Kyiv were not good but said he hoped better times were coming.
In his speech there, Lavrov insisted that “the defining factor of relations of the two countries was and remains economics,” a view Moscow has often insisted upon as a way of avoiding political issues and exploiting its own position as the larger of the two economic systems.
To enhance that “economic” relationship, he proposed expanding all kind of economic ties, developing “inter-regional ecological programs, and organizing a special Union of Leaders of Border Oblasts in a tripartite fashion, that is, including not only Russian and Ukrainian regions but Belarusian ones as well.
In addition, the Russian diplomat called for expanding “the possibilities of Euroregions” in this area in order to increase investment and for setting up an Association of Industry and Trade Houses of the Border Regions of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine,” an idea that he suggested was not political at all but one that many in Kyiv and elsewhere will see as precisely that.