By Paul Abelsky

Russia Profile, Russia
Nov 30 2006

CIS Seeks a New Course, But With Little Agreement As to Its Nature

The CIS has seen its mission and utility tested and transformed in
recent years, struggling to adapt to changing political environments
and diverse challenges. For all the anachronisms of the NATO bloc,
which also met last week, the recent gathering of the CIS leaders in
Minsk, Belarus, offered a particularly vivid exercise in fractious
internal rivalries, made worse by the mingling of political ambitions
and economic imperatives.

The proceedings of the annual CIS summit were held in the recently
completed building of the National Library of Belarus, a striking
diamond-shaped edifice on the city center's edge that is seen as
a high mark of President Alexander Lukashenko's public works. The
gathering brought together presidents of 11 countries, some of whom
have spent recent months strenuously trying to avoid contact with one
another. Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan, has regularly
sent a deputy official in his stead.

This year's summit marked the 15th anniversary of the CIS, a coalition
borne out of the Soviet breakup and variously described as a means
of a civilized divorce and a vehicle for Russia's post-imperial
aspirations. In recent years, tensions between individual member
states have started to strain the alliance, as some countries have
come to question the practical value of the commonwealth.

"The CIS continues to be a viable organization, even though countries
other than Russia are the ones capitalizing on its benefits," said
Alexander Fadeyev, an expert at the Institute for CIS States in
Moscow. "There is a struggle for leadership unfolding at the moment,
but Russia is the only country that can balance the various interests
and mediate conflict. Kazakhstan also aspires to the leadership role
but it is clearly perceived as a rival by some of the other member
states who are looking out for their own national interests."

The run of "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics and the
emergence of a new generation of leaders, particularly in Georgia,
have put in doubt the value of an association formed to sustain the
bonds officially severed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The rise of alternative alliances, such as GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine,
Azerbaijan, Moldova) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a
loose partnership between Russia, China, and several Central Asian
states, exemplifies the pursuit of alliances driven by more immediate
pragmatic concerns and the geopolitical realities prevailing today.

More recently, faced with Russia's pledge to raise the price of its
hydrocarbon exports, Belarus has tried to nudge Ukraine and Azerbaijan
toward greater cooperation in the energy sector.

The CIS has nonetheless managed to defy the grim assessments of its
future that regularly appear with the annual summit. It remains perhaps
the last forum for the presidents of Russia and Georgia to meet without
facing undue expectations, or for the Armenian and Azerbaijan leaders
to discuss the intractable problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ritualized
threats of secession by some countries have so far come to naught. What
is more, this year's meeting was animated by a reform agenda, focused
on making the alliance framework more efficient and bringing the
mission of the commonwealth up to date.

But the results have proven to be inconclusive at best. The countries
signed a 42-page document produced by a special reform committee
assigned the task of streamlining CIS operations and formulating
a strategy for future development. Other than a general commitment
to reform, the most tangible part of the agreement was the plan to
conduct further talks about the CIS restructuring at next year's
summit, tentatively scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg.

"While there is a consensus on the need to reform, all the countries
have their own ideas on how to go about the process," Fadeyev said.

"Unfortunately, Russia has been mostly silent on this, and has
not offered a specific project of its own. Russia should certainly
continue to use its assets in the energy sector to its advantage,
but it also needs to utilize other levers of influence in such areas
as military cooperation, trade, migration, and others."

The final press conference, shadowed by a scandal involving three
accredited Russian journalists who were not allowed to take part,
featured Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, and CIS
Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, who broadly outlined the
summit's outcome. The main agreements reached at the meeting
included a statement on efforts to combat illegal migration and
accords on combating money laundering, financing terrorism, and
human trafficking. Rushailo also said a separate document was signed
summarizing progress made to date on a program of economic integration
within the CIS to be accomplished by 2010.

The participants chose not to discuss or were not able to strike deals
on a set of other major issues. These included clarifying the legal
formulation of state borders between the member countries, as well
as a memorandum, proposed by Ukraine, on free trade and the use of
protectionist measures within the commonwealth. Russia also opposed
any changes to the status of the special CIS tribunal charged with
adjudicating economic disputes within the organization.

Before departing for Moscow, the Russian president told journalists
that the summit was "productive and business-like," adding that the
participants reached a consensus on the need for the organization
to continue to function and develop."We agreed that there is need
for the organization, whose potential has not yet been realized,"
Putin said. "At the same time, serious changes have transpired in
the post-Soviet space, and the organization should adapt to today's

Other leaders judged the outcome based on what their individual
countries were able to accomplish. Ukrainian President Viktor
Yushchenko sounded disappointed with some of the results, saying
that Ukraine's position wasn't fully taken into account. Mikheil
Saakashvili, president of Georgia, has characterized his unofficial
talks with Putin as the "start of a dialogue" that addressed some of
the key problems in their bilateral relations. The Russian embassy in
Minsk also hosted a meeting between Robert Kocharyan and Ilham Aliyev,
presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, accompanied by
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

While Russia and Georgia have barely managed to skirt the issues
dividing the two countries, there was a tentative breakthrough in
Russian-Moldovan trade relations, with Russia agreeing to lift the
ban on Moldovan wine and meat imports. In exchange, Moldova has
pledged to sign the protocol necessary for Russia's entry into the
World Trade Organization.

>>From Russia's position, the most worrisome development is the talk
of an energy consortium between Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan. The
leaders of the three countries met for a separate discussion, focused
in particular on the transit of Caspian oil to the European market.

According to Fadeyev, such a consolidation of the CIS member states
is a cause of concern because of its implied anti-Russian character,
driven by tensions over rising hydrocarbon prices: "The integrationist
processes should be allowed to proceed within the CIS unless they
try specifically to preclude Russia's participation."