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December 4, 2001
By Igor Torbakov

Russia's expanding economic potential allows Moscow to wield increasing political influence within the Commonwealth of Independent States, enabling the Kremlin to reinforce its diplomatic position on a variety of international issues. This trend was on display at the recent CIS Summit, which commemorated the organization's 10th anniversary.

The abrupt geopolitical changes in the post-September 11 world have also helped strengthen the Kremlin's hand. "The alliance between Moscow and Washington narrows the window of opportunity for the CIS countries to play on the contradictions between Russia and the West," points out the Vremya Novostei newspaper. "This is exactly what was the essence of foreign policy of Kiev and Tbilisi for a number of years," adds the newspaper.

Russia's neighbors seem ready to recognize the existence of the new rules of the game. As the Ukrainian analyst Vadim Karasev said in the interview with the influential Kiev daily Den, currently "under the soft Russian-American control the post-Soviet space is being transformed into a single strategic region with Russian leadership".

Most regional political observers agree that the organizational and economic potential of the CIS during the 1990s was limited by Russia's relative economic weakness. Since 2000, however, the situation has changed. As Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov acknowledged at the Moscow summit CIS summit November 30, "present-day Russia is not the Russia of the 1990s." The Uzbek leader stressed that the pace of integration within the CIS depends on the economic power of just one state - Russia. "If the ruble and Russian economy continue to strengthen, none of us will be able to escape its influence," said Karimov.

Karimov's view is shared by many in Moscow. Most likely, writes the political scientist Yelena Chinayeva in the Kommersant newspaper, "Russia's economic expansion into the CIS countries will continue since Russia remains the principal economic partner for most former Soviet republics." Such a trend is natural, Chinayeva argues. "After all," she writes, "in Latin America there's no stronger influence than the American one, and none of the former European colonies is free from the economic influence of the metropolis."

On the eve of the recent CIS summit, Moscow political scientists - members of the "Civic Debates" club - analyzed the main achievements of the Commonwealth's decade-long history. Contrary to the initial intentions of Russia's leadership, analysts say, the CIS failed to become a mechanism for the political re-integration of former Soviet republics. However, the organization has had several notable achievements.

The CIS helped secure the "peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union," enabling member states to avoid the so-called Yugoslav scenario. It also "ideologically camouflaged the process of the USSR's collapse, the emergence of new states and the coming to power of the new regional elites." Finally, the CIS "created the space for the lower-level integration" - connecting transport, power and communications networks, as well as allowing for the mutual recognition of university degrees.

Making use of its growing economic power and geopolitical weight in Eurasia, Russia urged its CIS partners at the Moscow summit to adopt a statement on Afghanistan. The importance of this document for Moscow lies in the fact that the leaders of the other CIS countries who aspire to play their own role in the anti-terror war agreed to support Russia on two key points - which also happen to be points of dispute between Moscow and Washington.

First, the statement confirmed that the struggle against global terrorism should be waged strictly in accordance with international law and, above all, the UN Charter. This provision, Russian strategists believe, will make it more difficult for the United States to attack Iraq if Washington attempts to launch a new operation to oust Saddam Hussein.

Secondly, the CIS heads of state unanimously backed Moscow's principled stance against the participation of the Taliban - no matter how "moderate" - in the post-conflict Afghan government. Russia seems wary that the United States may change its mind on this issue under pressure from Pakistan, and, thus, Moscow is trying to strengthen its position.

Some Moscow commentators are so enthusiastic about Russia's current prominence that they believe the country has outgrown the CIS framework. These analysts contend it is far more important to seek a leading place in the world community than to struggle for leadership within the "provincial" CIS. "Sooner or later," argues Dmitri Shusharin in the Vremya MN newspaper, "the CIS will follow in the USSR's footsteps, the post-Soviet space will lose the last vestiges of former unity, provinces will remain provinces, and Russia will still be [great] Russia."

The bulk of the Russian analytic community, however, is more cautious. The Eurasia specialists point out that, the current alliance between Washington and Moscow notwithstanding, there is still a potential for US-Russian competition. The Russian press, for example, noted that a week before the Moscow CIS summit, the United States announced it was providing about $50 million in aid to GUUAM countries, which include Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

"The joint battle against terrorism does not exclude bitter struggle for energy transit routes and economic influence in the space which both Russia and the United States regard vital for their interests," writes Vremya Novostei.

Editor's Note: Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; and Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000.

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