CIS: HARD TO DRAG ON, PITY TO DROP


29.11.06
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov)

CIS summit participants did not admit Kremlin pool journalists to the forum, a blunder the jubilee gathering of the Commonwealth of Independent States will be possibly remembered by.
In fact, there was nothing more memorable about the event. The agenda reflected the uncertain state the CIS is presently in. The summiteers did not make any notable decisions, merely acknowledging its numerous problems. The key issue – Commonwealth reforms – was put off until the nearest summit, due next summer.
The way it now is, the CIS is not unlike a suitcase without handles: hard to drag along, and pity to drop. A ghost of the Soviet Union, it is rapidly losing its practical functions. It, however, retains a symbolism that keeps post-Soviet leaders from saying out loud that the Commonwealth has, in fact, fallen apart. Meanwhile, nothing but toasts they say in Russian during formal banquets and informal meals brings them together — the time of agreements and far-reaching joint resolutions is past.
The CIS was initially regarded as a civilized divorce of Soviet republics. They have long separated, and now engage in global, regional and sub-regional developments with a greater or lesser degree of independence. Post-Soviet countries’ interest in preserving contacts the way they were 14-15 years ago is naturally shrinking. They no longer feel they are fragments of a collapsed empire. They gain more with bilateral links and new alliances than with the CIS. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, current CIS Chairman, de facto ascertained the point as he referred to Commonwealth free trade zones as distant future.
WTO membership further hinders mutual contacts — some CIS countries have joined the World Trade Organization, others are on its threshold, still others about to apply — to make trade patterns within the CIS mutually incompatible.
Russia was interested in the Commonwealth more than any other country as the CIS was emerging in the early 1990s. In fact, it was from the start the Russian way to preserve geopolitical supremacy in the post-Soviet area. Now, both objective and subjective reasons for such supremacy are receding into the past. Some of the post-Soviet countries are racing for leadership in their own sub-regions. Others justly regard links with East and West bypassing Russia as a must for economic survival, and focus their policies on such links. The other CIS countries are no longer oriented towards Russia alone, with varying geopolitical vectors.
Gas extraction and transits present a special problem. Ukraine and Belarus are transit countries for Russian exports. To other states, Russia is itself a transit country. National interests are too complicated, with varied points of attraction, to tolerate Russia or any other country taking a dominant position. None is any longer able to impose its will on others, with the economic and geopolitical situation changed beyond recognition. That is why the Commonwealth is running idle with its outdated arrangements.
Russian opinions on the CIS vary widely. The Public Opinion Foundation conducted a poll last year with a question: is the Commonwealth bearing good or bad fruit? 30% of respondents were at a loss, while 37% said the CIS was playing a positive role, and 11% negative — which means that the public is neutral toward the CIS, and not sure what to expect of it.
The same poll asked about CIS country leaders the respondents liked most. Nursultan Nazarbayev led with 27% approving. Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, was slightly behind with 25%. Both largely owed their beneficial public image to television news. 35% against Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and 24% against Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili proved the point. So, if the media now become more skeptical in the coverage of Lukashenko, due to Russia’s gas controversy with Belarus, his public approval rating in Russia will certainly slump.
Be all that as it may, the CIS still carries a symbolical message and so retains a potential, however short-lived — but then, as the generations brought up in the Soviet Union leave the political scene, there will be no one to carry the suitcase without handles in 15 years.

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