Post-Soviet integration: does the CIS work?

2010 sees the 19th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. In the first of this two-part review of the structures set up to replace it, Sergei Markedonov assesses the performance of the Commonwealth of Independent States ( CIS). He concludes that a complicating factor has been the lack of clarity surrounding the role of its dominant partner, Russia.
Sergei Markedonov
13 January 2010

The history of post-Soviet integration began on 21 December 1991 with the signing of the Alma-Ata Declaration. The document marking the birth of the Commonwealth of Independent States was signed at a meeting of the presidents of 11 former USSR republics in Alma-Ata, which was then capital of Kazakhstan.  Convened at the behest of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, it was a direct result of the Belovezha Accord of 8 December 1991.  Although the document announced the formation of the CIS, the deal between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had not been agreed with the leaders of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. 

CIS Summit - 2008

In 2008 leaders of CIS met in Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg

So the leaders of Kyrgyzia, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan met with Kazakhstan on 13 December 1991 in Turkmenia’s capital, Ashgabat.  This resulted in a statement agreeing to “become equal co-founders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which would take account of the interests of all its signatories”.  The leaders of the 5 republics also stated that the “historical and socio-economic realities of the Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan “were unfortunately not considered during the preparation of the Commonwealth Agreement”.  Their main demand was a guarantee of  “equal participation of the member states of the former USSR in the process of formulating the decisions and the documents for the CIS.”  “All member states of the Commonwealth must be recognised as founders and listed in the text of the Agreement as chief parties to the Agreement”.

The aims and main principles of the Commonwealth were set down in the Declaration.  The principle of the equality of all member states was one of them.  The CIS was defined neither as a state, nor as a supra-national organisation.

Azerbaidjan delayed ratification of the Alma-Ata Declaration until 24 September 1993.  This was because the ethno-nationalist leader Abulfaz Echilbey was elected in 1992 and in power until 1993, and because of the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh military conflict.  Moldova did not ratify until 8 April 1994, because of the conflict in Transnistria.  The last to join the CIS was Georgia.  It decided in principle on 8 October 1993 and the Georgian parliament voted this through on 1 March 1994.  Georgia later became the first country to withdraw entirely from the CIS on 12 August 2008, a decision which was ratified 6 days later.

Even today not all the CIS member states have equal status.  After the Kazan Summit of 26 August 2005, Turkmenistan announced that it would be an “associate member”.  Ukraine, one of the chief founder members, has still not ratified the Charter.  Its political and legal status within the Commonwealth is thus extremely contradictory.  If a country has not accepted the Charter, this means that the country cannot be considered a member. But none the less, Ukraine continues working in various fora, resisting Russian domination.

How effective is the CIS?

Eighteen years down the line, can we assess the effectiveness of this organisation?  Does the fact that some of its member states have increasingly been casting an eye in other geopolitical directions mean it has failed?   After all, the CIS has cut no ice in the various crises between its members: Russia-Ukraine over Tuzla Spit, the Azerbaidjan-Turkmenistan dispute over oilfields and the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008.

It has also failed to resolve any ethnic conflicts.  But before passing judgment on the CIS we should try and understand the aims and objectives which the organisation set itself at the beginning, both officially and unofficially.

Vladimir Putin stands out as the person who has been successful in his use of the CIS. At his press conference in Yerevan on 25 March 2005 he laid out the key difference between European integration and the CIS:  «While the EU countries have been working towards greater unity, the CIS was set up to manage a civilised divorce. In this the CIS has succeeded». The CIS, as Putin said, had no «top priorities in the areas of integration or economics».  There were swaggering declarations, oaths of friendship and brotherhood and the diplomacy of toasts.  What there wasn't was either strategy or tactics.

Hence the CIS has been variously described as a «political club», and a «club for first secretaries», since many of the former first secretaries of republican Central Committees of the Party became presidents of newly independent states after 1991.  While we may criticise it, the CIS has been instrumental in helping to resolve problems like the division and distribution of the Soviet military legacy; the creation of independent armed forces; the recognition of borders between the new independent states; the formulation of an agreed migration policy (introduction of visa-free travel), a coordinated energy pricing policy and relatively similar approaches in the humanities (recognition of Soviet standard diplomas).

Internal CIS changes

Meanwhile some of the Commonwealth's tenets were subjected to internal revision. In December 2000 Russia and Georgia introduced visas.  In 2005 Russia went over to market pricing for gas supplies to CIS partners, which removed low energy prices as a unifying element among CIS countries.  The 2008 recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states destroyed the fundamental Belovezha principle of the inviolability of state borders in place at the time of the dissolution of the USSR. 

Scepticism about the CIS has its roots in the trade and economic «wars» between its members (Russia and Moldova, Russia and Georgia until 2008, Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Belarus).  The CIS integration systems are also affected by the increased significance of bilateral relations for the new independent states. Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS also created a precedent for changes within the organisation.

As legal successor to the USSR, Russia regards the post-Soviet space as her own sphere of special interest, though Russian CIS policy was not formulated in terms of clear doctrine.  The result of this is her frequent swings between maintaining the geopolitical status quo and revisionism (explicit or implicit revision of the Belovezha Accords), tough defence of her interests and similarly tough defence of international legal procedures. 

Dr. Sergei Markedonov is Director of the Department for Inter-ethnic Relations at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

The second part of Sergei Markedonov's article can be read here


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