A Council Without Ministers

// The Countries of the Commonwealth Have Forgotten about the CIS

A summit of the Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers of the CIS Countries (SMID CIS) took place yesterday in Minsk. The meeting demonstrated that interest in the organization in the ex-Soviet world has dwindled to almost nothing: only three out of 12 ministers bothered to attend. The basic reasons for the current apathy are discord between Russia and Kazakhstan on the issue of reform in the CIS and fears raised by the Kremlin's anti-Georgian campaign.

The SMID CIS summit in Minsk was opened by Belorussian President Alexander Luakshenko, who reminded the assembled delegates that this year marks the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The meeting, however, had nothing approaching a holiday tone. Attendance was dismal: out of 12 foreign affairs ministers in the CIS countries, only Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who served as chairman, and his Kazakh colleague Kasymzhomart Tokayev flew to Minsk to attend the meeting. The third minister in attendance was Belorussian Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov, who represented the host country. The foreign affairs ministers of the other nine CIS republics passed up the summit for various reasons and sent their deputies instead.

The unprecedented indifference among the ex-Soviet republics to the jubilee event is tied to the similarly unprecedented crisis in which the CIS finds itself. From an official point of view, the massive under-attendance by the ministers appears to be completely logical. Until this year, the SMID CIS summits have served as preliminaries for the main event: the presidential forum. The ministers usually gather a day early to put the finishing touches on documents to be presented to the leaders of the CIS countries for signatures the next day. However, this time the schedule was different: the summit of presidents, which had originally been scheduled for today, was cancelled. This news put a damper on interest in the meeting of the ministers.

The majority of the foreign affairs ministers of the Commonwealth countries confirmed to Kommersant that no important questions were on the agenda for the meeting in Minsk and that they preferred to concentrate on their own affairs. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's press service told Kommersant that Foreign Affairs Minister Boris Tarasyuk did not go to Minsk because he was overwhelmed with work at home. "You take a look at what's going on in our country," said Foreign Affairs Ministry press secretary Andrey Deshchitsa by way of explanation. Moldovan Foreign Affairs Minister Andrey Stratan said that he is attending important meetings in Kishinev and declined to discuss the Minsk meeting. The foreign affairs ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan preferred to hold two-sided talks on the question of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry believes that the general apathy within the Commonwealth may be linked to a lack of a common opinion within the organization on the question of reform in the CIS countries. "Interest in inter-CIS affairs may be dampened by the fact that we have not decisively defined what reform should look like within the CIS," said a Kommersant source within the Russian Foreign Ministry. It is clear that these differences of opinion are so great that they prevented the CIS presidents from meeting in Minsk for the previously-scheduled period of time.

There have also recently been increasingly fierce arguments surrounding reforms in the CIS, where the role of chief reformer is claimed by both Russia and Kazakhstan. At an unofficial summit of CIS leaders in July of this year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who heads the Council of CIS Heads of State, proposed his idea for an overhaul of the Commonwealth. In Mr. Nazarbayev's opinion, the CIS should concentrate on five areas of cooperation: working out an agreement on migration policies, developing unified transport channels, collaboration in scientific-educational and in cultural-humanitarian spheres, and cooperation in the struggle against trans-border crime. Additionally, Kazakhstan has proposed that the CIS should include only those countries that are prepared to fully implement the decisions taken by the Commonwealth. However, Astana's proposals were met with no overt enthusiasm in Moscow. The fact of the matter is that Russia desires to play the major role in reforming the CIS and hopes to do so in a way that shores up its own elevated position within the organization.

Thus, when the Kazakh side suggested to those in attendance at the summit yesterday that they consider Mr. Nazarbayev's proposal, the initiative was met with criticism. "If someone, under the guise of reforms, wants to ruin the CIS, then we do not intend to participate in the process. Belarus wants no part of the destructive tendencies in the Commonwealth and earnestly entreats the other states to follow its example," said Mr. Lukashenko. "If we want to go forth to meet our enemy, then we should go forward with these so-called reforms. And that will be the greatest gift we can give to our foes, who sleep and see wealth in the ex-Soviet world."

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov supported the Belorussian leader, although he was more restrained in his comments. "The reforms were conceived not for the sake of reform. Reforms in the CIS should not lead to an automatic decrease in the member states of the Commonwealth," he concluded.

The Russian minister also stated that the cancelled summit of presidents will take place in November on a date that is still being decided. But the question of reforms is not likely to be decided at that meeting either. The heads of state of the CIS countries will concentrate on discussing topics such as the struggle against illegal immigration and money laundering.

However, the reason for general skepticism in relation to the CIS lies not only in disagreements on the question of reform within the organization. In essence, the recent events that took place between Russia and Georgia have pushed the CIS to the brink of extinction. The majority of the ex-Soviet states noted that Russia has imposed unprecedented sanctions against a CIS member country. The Russian-Georgian standoff is forcing the rest of the Commonwealth countries to seriously doubt the organization's capacity for survival, as well as its effectiveness.

The Kremlin's anti-Georgian stance has demonstrated to Russia's partners in the CIS the dangers that unfriendly relations with Moscow can be fraught with and has forced them to think about who may become the next victim of Russian rage. However, the scandal in the relations between Moscow and Tbilisi has also demonstrated that all of the relations between Moscow and the separate members of the CIS are strictly two-sided. Problems are decided only in the Kremlin, and meetings and summits play only a decorative role.

Nikolay Filchenko and Petr Yozh