June 20, 2007
The Commonwealth of (Mutually) Independent States
MOSCOW. (Vadim Dubnov for RIA Novosti) - The laid-back atmosphere at the recent CIS summit seemed to be specially designed to emphasize the unexpectedness of its success, although it is a well-known fact that pleasant surprises in politics occur only when they are carefully prepared.
And if we recall the thrilling intrigue of Russia's proposal to the Americans to use a radar in Azerbaijan, we could reach the conclusion that such a technique is becoming a trend-setter in Russian diplomacy.
From the PR point of view, the trend looks like a sure winner, especially against the background of growing suspicions that nothing more fascinating than a siege of the Estonian Embassy is in store for the observer. But if we take a closer look at practical results, none of the successes achieved have anything revolutionary about them. And while the radar scheme from the beginning left one with the impression of being a move that was well prepared but exclusively for propaganda, developments in the CIS are more intricate than any elaborate spin control.
Of course, after a series of back-to-back successes in Central Asia crowned with a protocol of intention to build a gas pipeline around, not across, the Caspian Sea (in other words, one that would not bypass Russia), it was tempting to consider it a final victory. But a few weeks later a visit by a top Russian official to Turkmenistan was canceled. Perhaps it was not just a visit: if successful, it could have resulted in a major breakthrough.
The face-off between two gas pipeline schemes is a chimerical race, and it is exclusively a matter of political taste to follow how well each of them has been thought through. And for a fairly long time success or failure on this playing field will be like trading in shares which actually have no price yet.
But the point is that most Russian initiatives, be they Central Asian gambits or an informal summit, belong to one and the same genre. One could add here that nothing new has taken place. Ritual games to galvanize the Commonwealth into life have been going on for a good many years and under a good many presidents. However, one can spot something new, not from the Russian side, but from the side of partners who have hit upon an entirely different line of conduct without doing any preliminary exploration.
That is to say, everything seems to look the same: the partners take a back seat, look at Moscow in front of them and shape their tactics exclusively in response to its impulses. But lurking behind it all is a whole new type of initiative.
Moscow enthusiastically, if without many illusions, greeted a proposal from former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov on a union with Russia. It is evident that Kulov in no way resembles a starry-eyed devotee of a post-Soviet brotherhood, or the Lukashenko of the mid-1990s. Whereas the Belarusian president was motivated by quite tangible illusions of becoming the true ruler of the expanses from Brest to Vladivostok, Kulov is made of a different political stuff. More than that, if such a union were in any way to become a reality, it could be assumed that none of the serious and ambitious Kyrgyz politicians would risk putting the matter on a practical plane.
Kulov's initiative, strange as it sounds, is not a sign of a return to the past, when Moscow was the focus of the former-Soviet space, but, on the contrary, a symptom of a strange and unstable but ultimate sovereignty. His imitation of integration is no more than a trick to lure President Bakiyev into a trap, into a propaganda pitfall that has nothing to do with real politics.
Integration could also be used for foreign political aims - we heard a lecture to this effect from Turkmenistan's new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Strictly speaking, he is guided by the same motives and same techniques as his great predecessor. But while earlier the global game, through the predecessor's pains, was limited to close neighbors and former brothers, the successor, unencumbered by the Turkmenbashi's idiosyncratic style, is ready to bargain more expansively. His appearance in St. Petersburg was no doubt a sensation, only not for the reasons those who want the CIS reanimated think it was. It was only a part of the bigger game in which every ingratiating smile to Moscow is actually a proposal to its opponents to up the ante.
President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova is dealing with more or less the same problem. In the same spirit of sensationalism, he preferred a trip to the Kremlin to a meeting with GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) leaders. Here, too, we have some analogies. In just the same way, to reunite Georgia 13 years ago, Eduard Shevardnadze joined the CIS. And it is not only that the experiment to bring Abkhazia back has failed. The point is that 13 years later Moldova is addressing its domestic political headaches as befits a sovereign if not very strong state. And Voronin himself, with his experience, hardly believes he will get Transdnestr back; as much as Moscow and Chisinau may desire this, difficulties and contradictions are so plentiful that the chance for Voronin as president to live to see that happy day seems fragile and flimsy. And this aside from the fact that no agreement will guarantee Moscow that Chisinau will halt its charm offensive against Europe. But, of course, the temptation to read a strategic change in today's preferences cannot be helped.
Every Commonwealth member has learned to play without resorting to the former demarches and complaints, which were a standing feature of any summit just a few years ago. This gave grounds for arguing that the CIS had no future. Now everything is nice and quiet. Demarches and polemics are no longer needed. Everything is settled, with no one expecting or demanding anything. And every one on this master floor plays their own game - theirs alone. No one prevents anyone from buying long.
Vadim Dubnov is a freelance political commentator.