Yury Filippov, RIA Novosti political commentator

The Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, emerged early in the 1990s as a substitute for the collapsed Soviet Union. Its creators cherished the hope that the organisation will be on a par with the European Union as a viable regional alliance. Those hopes never came true. Now, 14 years since its inception, the Commonwealth is nothing but a formal international organisation that provides comparatively convenient venues for regular presidential and prime-ministerial meetings. The latest CIS summit, which finished in Minsk a few days ago, demonstrated its inadequacies with the utmost clarity.
The CIS has once again shelved its reform blueprints. The heads-of-state have not yet reached agreement on integration concepts in the post-Soviet area. They are not even sure whether such integration is possible at all. Russia’s support of treaties to legally formalise the common CIS frontiers came up against harsh resistance from Ukraine, whose stance is somewhat ambiguous as it fiercely fights for the utmost independence while clinging to the hope of eventually integrating in the European Union. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev urged the CIS to focus on several top integration priorities—in particular, communications, education and population migrations. His initiative did not receive final approval from the other heads of state. Alexander Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, emphatically appealed to the CIS to extend the range of spheres for regulation. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko advanced quite a different concept. He thinks it is enough to limit cooperat
ion in the CIS to economic ties with free trade zones, without establishing a customs union. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin offered the most generalised wording for CIS objectives—he called on the Commonwealth “to adapt to the present-day reality”.
His laconic generalisation appears to be the most fitting of all concepts advanced at the summit—it pinpoints the root cause of all the problems encountered by the CIS countries in their relations with each other. It is, however, vague what lies behind “present-day reality” and how to adapt to it.
Politically, the former Soviet republics used the preceding 15 years to consolidate their independence, though the scope of their actual sovereignty varies from country to country. Their top officials’ political interdependence is steadily shrinking, so, when they work at mutual understandings, national leaders proceed not only from regional but global developments, with an emphasis on such power centres as the US and the European Union—which means that the foreseeable future will make them not only partners but occasional rivals. All CIS countries are ready to face this challenge.
The situation is much more complicated in the economic sphere. The CIS owes its current integration setbacks largely to Moscow’s stance. Russia found the initial integration fruit disappointing, and so is resolutely shifting to free-market patterns. At the same time, it recurs to tough protectionist policies in its CIS contacts. Russia is drastically raising natural gas prices for all CIS importers. Belarus is no exception, though the two countries formally make a union state. Now and again, Russia bans food imports from other Commonwealth countries—suffice it to mention sensational controversies around Georgian wine and Belarusian chocolates. More obstacles will certainly appear in the future. Russia may eventually remove them, as was quite recently the case with wines and meat from Moldova—but no one can be sure that Russia will give up protectionism in export/import links with its CIS partners.
Russian gas presents a huge problem. Its fabulous deposits and a ramified mainline network were long regarded as the most reliable basis for post-Soviet economic integration—a function they are losing, to all appearances. “Russia will shift to market relations with all its energy partners,” President Vladimir Putin said. What underlies his words? Was he referring to the most formidable economic instance of “present-day reality”, which the other CIS countries will have to adapt to, whether they like it or not?
Even if the CIS never develops into a full-fledged regional alliance, Russian gas will certainly retain far greater economic importance than, say, Georgian and Moldovan wines, and many of the CIS members will resolutely demand the vital resource.
Russia has recently doubled and raised even higher gas prices for some CIS countries. Many experts regard the move as Moscow’s authoritarian pressure on young democracies, Ukraine and Georgia having the worst of it as they spare no efforts to get from under Russian influence and integrate into Europe. The opinion is widely shared in Russia and has become part of the latest national myth of an energy superpower that exercises diktat on its small neighbouring countries.
In reality, Russia largely owes its policies to its limited economic resources. It is not extracting enough gas to maintain exports on their previous scale, to say nothing of satisfying ever-rising demands. It will take huge investments to develop new deposits and update the available—much more than the CIS importers can afford. Revenues from higher export prices for Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia will be negligible. However, those countries will evidently cut their imports to allow Russia increase exports to the better-off European countries. They will make formidable gas-race rivals not only to CIS countries, China and Japan but even to young EU members—for instance, Poland, the Czech Republic and the post-Soviet Baltic countries.
CIS countries’ leaders have to reckon with “present-day reality” even when they choose to shrug it off. Some aspects of that reality are manifest far outside the good old “presidential club” the CIS presently is—an itinerant club travelling from one CIS country’s capital to another. Will the post-Soviet countries ever adapt to the new situation? The answer is vague, all the vaguer as adaptation is necessary not for particular countries on their own but for the entire Commonwealth, as its Statute demands. -0-