MOSCOW, August 29 (RIA Novosti, political commentator Peter Lavelle). The weekend's meeting of CIS leaders in Kazan demonstrated that this loosely-tied organization must evolve to meet pressing political concerns in the post-Soviet space.
Economic and political integration for the group of 12 is a dead letter, but managing the democratization of some member countries, with Western cooperation, is not.
Established in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia hoped the CIS would evolve into a regional economic and political bloc, with Moscow at its center. This year's leadership summit in Kazan has ended this hope for good, as former Soviet states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and, to a degree, Turkmenistan) are determined that the CIS will be nothing more than a discussion group in its present format.
At the center of this year's summit were plans to form a four-nation Common Economic Space (CES), envisioning common tax, customs, and transport tariff systems in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko said he was not prepared to sign any enabling agreements without a comprehensive review of the CES documents back home - which means Ukraine may sign only those agreements that will not hinder its bid to eventually join the European Union. The CES, to be modeled on the EU, will create a point of reference for the CIS; Ukraine's strong participation is seen as vital to both.
The Kazan summit essentially ended in failure, but this does not mean the CIS is doomed to irrelevance. A change of mission could serve the interests of all CIS countries and limit potential conflict with the West as political changes, such as the specter of "colored" revolutions, continue to haunt some former Soviet states.
The watered-down results at Kazan were not unexpected. Russia's new deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, anticipated the summit's outcome, if only indirectly, earlier this month when mulling a change of Kremlin policy toward the CIS. "We cannot accept methods of forced 'democratization' in the post-Soviet space, be they 'color revolutions' or information and political pressure put on the authorities," he said. But he added, "The involvement in the CIS of the U.S., the EU, and other players is no longer seen as extraordinary... This is normal, in principle." Karasin clearly hinted that the Kremlin was formulating a new set of rules in the hope of turning the CIS first into an arena for fair competition and then into a region of "predictable partnership based on mutual respect."
This change of policy is hardly surprising. The "colored" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and, to some extent, in Kyrgyzstan, have the Kremlin finally acknowledging that the post-Soviet order within the CIS remains fluid and the direction of change should be managed to avoid a war of words with the West.
The Kremlin now accepts political change in the CIS and will not automatically blame the West for everything that goes "wrong" in the post-Soviet space. There are important caveats, however: changes must be the results of compromises, without violence, within the law, and promotion of political stability. This is a scenario toward the greater democratization of the CIS that Russia, the U.S., and EU (even Georgia and Ukraine) can embrace.
Such an approach denies those hardliners in the West and Russia who see political change in the CIS as a zero-sum game. Neither Russia nor the West "gains or loses" a country when democracy advances - all sides, including the country undergoing change, win. The West and Russia working together as partners in the CIS, instead of competing, can also present a united front against Islamist forces and reduce the possibility of China extending its influence in the CIS.
The Kazan summit ended with one vision of the CIS in tatters. Russia's hope for economic and political integration will not come about anytime soon, if ever. However, Karasin's comments on the CIS may give the group of 12 a new lease on life. Reaching out to the West with a proposal of "managed democratization" for the CIS, which allows peaceful political change and stability, will not only lower the risk of an uncontrolled regime change within the group, but will also serve as an important confidence-building measure that may improve Russia's relations with the West.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.