Monday, October 8, 2018

CIS Still has a Role to Play, Albeit a Smaller One than Before, Regional Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – Ever since it was created to provide a link among the former Soviet republics, the CIS has featured discussions about whether it was simply a mechanism to promote “a civilized divorce” among the post-Soviet states or a structure around which a new empire could be constructed.

            As time has passed, and CIS meetings have attracted ever less attention as was the case with the almost unnoticed session of the heads of government of the CIS in Tajikistan last week, ever more commentators are asking whether it is finally time to disband the group given the existence of others in the region.

            “If one analyzes this last meeting,” Askar Muminov of Kazakhstan’s Central Asian Monitor says, “one can see that it s agenda in no way differs from that of five years ago” despite all the changes in the world.  Consequently, one must ask, he says, what role it in fact plays or hopes to play 27 years on (

            He posed that question to four leading specialists on the post-Soviet region. Their answers provide a useful description of where the CIS now is and why it continues to exist despite the fact that many view it as a dead letter.

            Grigory Trofimchuk, a Russian specialist on foreign policy and security, the summits of the CIS “help preserve at least the appearance of a certain unity and the illusion of mutual support,” things that individual countries can make use of to pursue their national agendas and to reach bilateral accords.

            “I think,” he says, “that Russia was ready long ago to ‘let all of them go,’ but these people and their countries do not want to separate, sensing that there is nowhere else where they could find such a stable harbor.” Thus, in his view, the source of the CIS’s continuing vitality lies not in Moscow but in other capitals.

            Russian political analyst Eduard Poletayev has a slightly different view. He points out that whatever its defects and however many obituaries have been pronounced for the group, the CIS remains “the only organization which unites the largest part of the post-Soviet space.” After all only Georgia and Ukraine have left it outright.

            According to him, the CIS is both psychologically and practically important for people in its member states, providing a sense of community and also a place for cooperation about visa-free travel, combatting terrorism and talking about a variety of bilateral and even multilateral problems.

            But he points out that international organizations often take on a life of their own even if their original purposes have disappeared and that as a result, it is very difficult and sometimes even impossible to close them down. No one wants to slam the door, and so they continue on almost by inertia. The CIS is among them.

            Dmitry Mikhaylichenko, an Ufa specialist on  ethnic issues, says that the CIS remains “as before an instrument for the civilized divorce” of the former Soviet republics and that because of that its role is declining with each passing year.  But, he says, if the purpose of the group changes, that could change as well.

            He suggests that the group should focus on economic rather than political issues and on questions like the construction of a transportation network between the European Union and China.

            And Zhaksylyk Sabitov, a Kazakh specialist on international economics, says that in the short term, the CIS will live. As long as Putin is president of Russia, he says, “the CIS will not be reformed and none of its members will try to leave it” unless they are involved in a direct military clash with Russia as both Georgia and Ukraine have been.  

            Instead the CIS will be reduced to “ritual” summits at which leaders will talk to one another and act as if they have more in common than they in fact do.

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