The self-congratulatory book was printed. Elite hotel venues were booked. An ambitious agenda was agreed on, and the official calendars of 12 heads of state were duly adjusted.
But last week’s gathering in Moscow to celebrate five years together as the Commonwealth of Independent States had to be called off for the fourth time because of the illness of the summit’s host, Russian President and Commonwealth Chairman Boris N. Yeltsin.
The alliance originally proclaimed to supplant the dying Soviet Union may be in the same condition as its chairman.
Half a decade after its creation, the commonwealth remains more an idea than a confederation, bereft of power and unable to function.
Indeed, the primary value Russians attach to strengthening ties with former Soviet neighbors is the collective clout it gives them, serving as a scarecrow against expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and providing Russia a plausible pretext for continued involvement in what are now foreign countries’ domestic affairs.
So slow has integration been in the economic and political spheres that some within the commonwealth--Kazakhstan first among them--are chafing under Russia’s leadership and demanding direction by a more energetic figure.
Escalating integration was a popular nationalist theme among Russians during last year’s presidential election, when Yeltsin sought to lure votes from the Communists by suggesting he could reinvent a suitable successor to the mighty Soviet Union. Last April, he issued a flurry of decrees on linking trade, transport and taxes with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
That campaign tactic put the development of relations with each commonwealth country on a bilateral track, allowing Russia to forge closer ties with some while letting others remain at arm’s length.
But even the purported fast-track union has failed to come together because the interested countries are those that have more to ask of Russia than to give to it.
“The general importance of the CIS for Russia is extremely low,” said Anatoly I. Utkin, chief foreign policy advisor to the Duma, the lower house of parliament. “But what is important is [Yeltsin’s] desire to use the CIS to improve his personal standing.”
After Yeltsin made highly publicized overtures to tighten the bonds with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Utkin noted, his popularity ratings shot up. Those calls gave many voters the impression Yeltsin was committed to restoring some semblance of the Soviet Union as a shield against the threatened encroachment of NATO.
In a special book of official pontifications on the alliance’s five-year anniversary, issued last month in the Belarussian and commonwealth capital, Minsk, Yeltsin conceded that there remains doubt among many about the wisdom of integration.
“We do not dramatize the fact that not all CIS states are prepared for closer interaction, but we cannot ignore it either,” he said, explaining last year’s shift in strategy to accommodate “movement at different speeds.”
But the lack of movement on any plane has spurred a campaign to reassign the chairmanship to the leader of another country.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin put the issue more bluntly in an interview last week with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
“Anybody who is not satisfied with the current level of integration can organize the [CIS] center in his own country,” he said.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev has been critical of Yeltsin for failing to push for a common currency and other cohesive measures. Nazarbayev has hinted that direction would be more reliable from his capital, Almaty. But allowing another republic to take the leading role could deplete what little benefit Russia gets from the alliance.
“The CIS is important as a legitimizing factor for Russian activities in some of the member countries, take for instance the Russian peacekeepers in Tajikistan,” noted Andrei V. Kortunov, a historian and foreign policy analyst.
Whether the CIS finds more common ground or disintegrates because of a lack of direction depends mostly on Russia, Kortunov said. He pointed out that any success Russia has in building separate alliances with the trade and security structures of the West may further weaken its ties to former Soviet partners.
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Commonwealth of Independent States