Jubilee summits and Russian pragmatism

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MOSCOW, (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti). -- The Kazan summits of the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Common Economic Space (CES) passed much as predicted.

Everyone was keen to avoid squabbles that could have ruined the simultaneous celebration of the 1000th anniversary of Kazan.

The leaders of the former Soviet republics were reserved and diplomatic; they tried to focus on the issues that unite, rather than the problems that divide.

The only exception was the announcement by Turkmenistan that it had decided to change its status from full member to associated member. However, this was not unexpected, as Turkmenistan had always kept a distance between itself and the other CIS countries.

Of course, the external appearance of goodwill could not hide the substantial differences between the CIS countries due to the existence of two competing centers of influence: the Russian center of influence (with organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Cooperation organization, the CES, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which Russia and China play the leading roles) and the pro-Western Ukrainian-Georgian center (which is setting up the Democratic Choice Commonwealth).

It was clear even before the summit that Russia wanted to consolidate relations with genuine allies and at the same time to develop pragmatic economic relations, in compliance with the norms of international law, with those states that have chosen "the European path." The Russian policy was that economic privileges would only be granted to those states that were prepared to act consistently as its political partners.

This heralds the end of the "nostalgic inertia" period of the CIS, when Russia saw all the former Soviet republics as historical allies who would remain within the sphere of Russian influence. It was as a result of this assumption that the ruling elites of some CIS countries believed it expedient to adopt the following strategy: they would take full advantage of the privileged economic partnership with Russia while at the same time maintaining their pro-Western geopolitical stand (in the hope that they would eventually be admitted to the European Union).

An analogy can be drawn with the well-known joke in the 1970s about a German who wanted to draw a wage in West Germany but use the social benefits offered by East Germany. It is evident that this kind of approach cannot work in the long run, and so the CIS member states and their leaders now have to make a choice.

It seems that Ukraine has already made its choice. At the Kazan summit, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed to sign 29 documents on the creation of the Common Economic Space by December 1, 2005 and another 15 documents by March 1, 2006. Ukraine will not take part in the process and has announced that it is not prepared to create supranational bodies within the CES.

Some time ago, Ukrainian Economic Minister Sergey Teryokhin, who is responsible for the CES talks, said that his country might withdraw from the project. His statement was later refuted, but it is now clear that the minister was simply anticipating events.

Although some experts are saying that this spells the death of the CIS, it is too early to draw such a conclusion. There is clearly still scope to use the CIS as a forum for dialogue between the leaders and ruling elites of the former Soviet republics. Where else could the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan meet regularly? Where else could the presidents of Russia and Georgia calmly discuss problems without prior coordination of positions? In Kazan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili discussed questions pertaining to the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia.

At present, only the CIS offers such a forum. There is currently no alternative to this mechanism and one is hardly likely to be created in the foreseeable future.

This does not mean, however, that there is no need to modernize the executive agencies of the CIS, which have remained unchanged since they were created in the 1990s. It was precisely on this issue that the discussions in Kazan centered.

The CIS will live on, though the rules of the game will become stricter and more realistic and pragmatic. At the same time, the competition between the former Soviet republics will become fiercer. The next battleground will be Belarus. The Belarusian presidential election is scheduled for next year and the opposition would like to mark the event with a "color revolution" (with overt assistance from the West, whose criticism of Alexander Lukashenko is becoming increasingly harsh).

Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces in Ukraine want to get their revenge at the upcoming parliamentary elections for the defeat they suffered in last year's presidential campaign. The parliamentary elections are particularly significant in the light of current Ukrainian political reforms that are expanding the powers of the legislative branch.

Looks like in the next few months and years, both the Russian and the pro-Western centers of influence will be competing for dominance in the post-Soviet space.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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