The CIS was originally a sleight-of-hand trick by which the presidents of the RSFSR and Ukrainian and Belorussian union-republics conjured the disappearance of the USSR. It is generally conceded now that Yeltsin's wish for revenge against Gorbachev was a sine qua non of this remarkable, and successful, performance. The creators of the CIS never intended it to be the continuation of the USSR by other means.
In October 1992, nine CIS countries signed the Bishkek Accord on visa-free travel: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. Georgia joined the accord in August 1995. In 1997, Ukraine and Azerbaijan separately negotiated bilateral regimes of visa-free travel with Russia. In June 1999, Turkmenistan withdrew from the agreement and set up a bilateral visa-free regime with Russia. Earlier this year, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have begun selectively to enforce border controls against nationals from CIS countries. In late August of this year, Russia announced that it would file a formal notice of withdrawal from the agreement on visa-free travel among the CIS participant countries, to take effect 90 days later as provided for in the agreement itself.
Only a few days later, it was made known that a visa-free regime would be instituted between Russia and the other member of the CIS Customs Union, also called the Group of Four that includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in addition to Russia. Within a week, the Russian foreign ministry announced that the system of visa-free travel would also continue in force with Uzbekistan, Armenia and Moldova, which were in addition to the bilateral agreements struck in 1999 and 2000 with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As for Russia's withdrawal from the CIS visa-free regime, Western analyses generally failed to report, much less assess, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's explanation that the growth of international terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking made it impossible to continue the visa-free agreement.
The last time that Western analysts sounded the CIS's death-knell so loudly was in 1997 when Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova created the GUAM entente, which became GUUAM when Uzbekistan joined in 1999. This grouping, widely mischaracterized and misunderstood, is not a treaty because there is no document identifying a general or a specific enemy. Indeed, discussions on the possible creation of a joint peacekeeping unit came to naught and a planned meeting of defense ministers earlier this year never occurred. GUUAM is not even an organization, because it has no secretariat. At NATO's 50th birthday celebration in April 1999 in Washington, the United States. explicitly discouraged GUUAM's members from establishing a permanent body. Since late 1999, Moldova and Uzbekistan have in practice withdrawn from all GUUAM activities, each for its own reasons. GUUAM is nothing but an entente that is in turn nothing but a diplomatic term that means "understanding" in French.
To put the CIS's vital signs into comparative perspective, it would be hard to argue that GUUAM is more alive today than the CIS. Air defense integration is alive and well within the CIS institutional framework, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, although Georgia and Turkmenistan do not participate in all aspects. CIS railroad integration works so well that the Russian railways recently sent a chill throughout Central Eurasia when they threatened not to move commodities from deadbeat countries that have not paid their transport bills.
The CIS is sometimes said to have been the mechanism for a "civilized divorce" of the Newly Independent States. This is a comfortable argument, because it can be taken to imply that the mission has been accomplished, re-enforcing the impression of the CIS's demise. The origin of this interpretation was a 1992 Ukrainian insistence, designed merely to guard a certain national autonomy vis-à-vis Russia. Yet if we look at the current situation, we see secessionist, chronic low-intensity, and civil-war conflicts in a half-dozen states. Furthermore, there are trade flows that continue to suffer from insufficient monetization and an associated resultant haggling over terms of barter, resulting in energy flows being periodically cut off for non-payment. A peculiar type of blindness is required to assert that such a divorce is civilized.
On a more overtly geopolitical level, one of Vladimir Putins first acts upon his inauguration was to direct Russia's National Security Council to sign bilateral cooperation agreements with the NSCs of a series of CIS participants, starting with Kazakhstan. It is generally known, although not publicized, that not only foreign policy formulation towards the "Near Abroad" but also parts of its implementation have been delegated to the KGB successor organization tasked with following the region. Given all this, the state of the CIS' life-signs becomes analytically less significant as an indicator of Russian influence in Central Eurasia, which is frequently the putative concern of those who in the West who so closely follow its pulse.
Not only is the CIS not dead, its vital signs seem to matter more to Western triumphalism than to Russian geopolitics. Perhaps this is why we are periodically treated to announcements of the CIS's death. If the CIS did not exist, it would have to be invented and maintained in eternal "intensive care," and periodically displayed so as to camouflage reassuringly the more profound, much messier, and indeed much more disquieting reality, that it is asserted to represent.
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
See reprint info if you want to reproduce anything in any medium.
For individual, non-commerical use only.
This Web-based compilation: Copyright © Robert M. Cutler
First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 2, no. 20 (27 September 2000): 9–10.