No. 3 - Jun. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 13-18
OF INDEPENDENT STATES:
STILL ALIVE THOUGH NOT KICKING.
Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Moscow News
Predictably enough,Mikhail Gorbachev was right in
his argument with Boris Yeltsin on the consequences of the disintegration
of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's portrayal of an immense territory shaken
by political confrontations, inter-ethnic conflicts and economic troubles
turned out to be much closer to reality than Yeltsin's picture of a pastoral
community of new independent states. But, although right, Gorbachev still
belonged as much to the past as Yeltsin represented the future. Gorbachev's
desperate attempts to conserve the Soviet Union as a federation of republics
were eventually doomed to failure and, after the defeat of the August
coup, nothing could really have stopped the fall of the already dying
The creation, in December 1991, of the Commonwealth
of Independent States (CIS) was, for its initiators - the Presidents of
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - mainly an instrument to get rid of the old
centre in Moscow, the very existence of which questioned their own newly
acquired power. At the same time, the CIS appeared as a device for an
orderly dismantling of the USSR and a framework for solving the multiple
problems arising from its disintegration and the necessity to share its
Today, barely half a year after its creation, the
CIS has become increasingly ineffective and less and less relevant for
the members states. The main reason for this is that the community is
caught in an initial contradiction. Among its declared aims were the maintenance
of centralized control over the nuclear forces and a part of the military,
a certain coordination in foreign policy, and cooperation in the economy
in order to conserve a single economic space. But the very essence of
the newly formed states, who strive for full independence and sovereignty,
pushes at least some of them, and above all Ukraine, to question almost
all the objectives of the CIS. In order to assert their power, the new
national political elites are relying on the forces of nationalism, and
the only path to complete independence appears to be a severance of ties
with Moscow in such fields as the military, Russia being perceived by
them as the inheritor of the old imperial centre. It is highly probable
that this basic contradiction between the objectives of the CIS and those
of the new national authorities will eventually play a fatal role for
Russia and Ukraine
This situation is aggravated by the contradictions
and disputes stemming from the very complex consequences of the USSR's disintegration.
Several factors undermine the CIS - inter-ethnic conflicts, the issue of
the future of the Soviet army, potential territorial disputes and different
perspectives by the new-born states concerning foreign policies. To be fair,
some of these conflicts were inherited by the CIS from the Soviet Union,
and Gorbachev proved as unable to solve them as the presidents of the eleven
CIS states would appear to be. The development of these conflicts has already
led to a full-scale war between two CIS members, Armenia and Azerbaijan
in Nagorno Karabakh and to a bloody struggle in Moldova. Until now, the
CIS has proved completely incapable of solving these crises. As a result,
the newly elected popular front leaders of Azerbaijan declared that their
country would soon leave the CIS. In Moldova, such a possibility is considered
as well. But what can finally break up the CIS is the ever-growing tension
between Russia and Ukraine. As of today, Moscow and Kiev consider each other
to be much more rivals than partners both inside and outside the CIS.
Such a development could have been predicted right
after the creation of the Commonwealth. Ukraine was the first republic
to take the decision to create independent armed forces. Belarus, Azerbaijan,
Moldova, Uzbekistan, and recently Kazakhstan, followed step. But Ukrainian
President Leonid Kravchuk was the first to move from words to action.
Already in March, Kiev decided to put a number of military units stationed
in Ukraine under its jurisdiction. This pushed Russia to speed up its
decision to create its own military forces - a move that Yeltsin had for
long declared himself reluctant to make. On 4 April, he signed a presidential
decree on the creation of the Russian army. On 6 April, Leonid Kravchuk
signed his own decree taking over the Black Sea fleet and putting all
military and naval forces on Ukrainian soil under his government's control.
Thus Moscow and Kiev found themselves involved in a full political confrontation.
After a few heated days, Yeltsin and Kravchuk decided
that they had gone too far and suspended their respective decisions concerning
the fleet. They set up an interparliamentary commission with the task
of finding a solution to the problem. But it has only frozen the situation
since a lot is involved in this dispute for both countries - political
status, national pride and geostrategic factors. The issue is important
enough in its own right. The fleet based at Sevastopol includes 345 surface
ships, 28 submarines, 300 airplanes and helicopters and it numbers 900,000
men, with a value estimated at 80 billion roubles. And it is closely connected
with another problem that exacerbated Russian-Ukrainian tensions - the
fate of Crimea, a 27,000 square kilometre peninsula on the Black Sea with
a strong (70 per cent) majority Russian population. Until 1954, Crimea
belonged to Russia whereupon it was attached to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev.
Claims that Crimea is a part of Russia were the
main source of a heated discussion during the Congress of People's Deputies
in Moscow last April. On 21 May, the Russian Parliament passed an extremely
controversial political decision, declaring that the 1954 transfer of
the peninsula to Ukraine lacked legal force. The decision provoked a furious
reaction from Kiev. The Ukranian Parliament did not pay any attention
to the Russian law-makers' pledges that they were not making territorial
claims on the Crimea and took it as an attempt to put in question Ukrainian
territorial integrity. Kravchuk rejected any possibility of talks with
Russia on the "territorial issue", and stressed that Crimea is an integral
part of Ukraine. In this, he has the full support of the Ukrainian parliament
and the nationalistic movement Rukh.
The Crimean leaders initially proposed independence
for the peninsula and decided to conduct on 2 August, a referendum on
secession. But facing the tough Ukrainian stance, they suspended the earlier
declaration of Crimean independence and finally chose to engage in talks
with Kiev on the peninsula's status. There is a good chance that Crimea
will obtain a large measure of autonomy inside Ukraine. In this case,
its battle with Kiev will, at least for some time, be over. But the whole
issue is certain to remain very sensitive in Russian-Ukrainian relations
as one cannot exclude possible further political collisions over Crimea's
The controversy between Russia and Ukraine provides
the most vivid example of the possible conflicts between the member states
of the CIS. There is a danger of worsening relations between Russia and
Kazakhstan if Moscow should question the existing borders between the
two countries, claiming back the northern provinces of Kazakhstan with
a population which is predominantly Russian-speaking. Then again, the
fact that 25 million Russians live outside Russia itself may lead to new
tensions, especially if the authorities of the new states tend to discriminate
against them, as they have already done in Estonia. (Here, all the Russian
speakers, which means 40 percent of the population, were refused citizenship
and the rights ensuing from it).
The picture is further complicated by the progressive
weakening of economic ties inside the CIS. The existence of a single economic
space is questioned by Ukraine which intends to introduce in the near
future its own currency - the Grivna. It will certainly add a new dimension
to the already chaotic situation in the CIS economy. Already, salaries
in Ukraine are paid in coupons - a temporary imitation of local money
which is the first step towards leaving the "rouble zone".
Finally, the CIS states are showing every sign
of pursuing different foreign policy objectives. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus
are moving towards the West, Moldova towards Romania, the Islamic republics
are attracted by the South, i.e. Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,
while Armenia is trying to combine both a Western and Southern stance.
At the end of February, Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics of
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were given full membership
of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) which includes Turkey,
Iran and Pakistan and which has been considered an important step towards
a regional coalition.
Even more serious, Russia and Ukraine seem to be
growing into full-scale foreign policy rivals. During his visit to the
US in early May, President Kravchuk asked for American security guarantees
against Russia. He did not receive them, but it helped Kravchuk to give
an international dimension to Russian-Ukrainian contradictions. Kiev favours
the creation of a Baltic-Black Sea alliance including Ukraine, the three
Baltic republics, and Belarus, with the explicit aim of providing a counterweight
to Russia. Ukraine is trying to establish special military ties with Poland,
Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and to compete with Russia for Western European
All this, naturally, precludes any real military,
economic or foreign policy coordination inside the CIS, at least between
its two biggest powers. The Summit meetings of the CIS presidents, which
take place once a month, cannot provide this anyway, since they are obliged
to limit themselves to the most acute problems facing the Commonwealth
without finding, as a rule, any solutions to them. It is even less surprising
if, for instance at the last meeting in Tashkent on 12 May, four presidents
out of 11, and among them the Ukrainian and Moldovian, were absent.
Residual factors for integration
There still are, to be sure, important factors of integration
between the republics of the former Soviet Union. Seventy-five million people,
or a quarter of the USSR population, live outside their national areas and
one marriage in eight is mixed. The CIS economy,embracing 11 states, is
still essentially a single body. There is still a common currency, and the
majority of the republics do notintend to leave in the foreseeable future
the rouble zone. The USSR's vast heritage is extremely hard to divide, e.g.
transport, power engineering, space research, and there remains a high level
of interdependence. For instance, Uzbekistan imports from other CIS republics
(in relation to total volume of consumption) 100 per cent of its sugar,
67 per cent of its fish, 66 per cent of its potatoes and 53 per cent of
its meat and milk. From a certain point of view, the new states are also
doomed to occupy a single economic space because of their economic and technological
backwardness, at least until they are able to sell their inferior quality
goods outside the CIS.
Then there is the necessity for the member states
to have a proper defence. Not all of them consider themselves able to
afford independent armed forces and even those that opted for it (such
as Kazakhstan) are attracted by closer cooperation in the military field.
This, as well as the desire of former Soviet Central Asian republics not
to become dependent on Iran or some of their other southern neighbours,
has led the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, to consider the
possibility of a political and military union between Russia, Kazakhstan,
Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. However, in the rapid flux of CIS politics, Belarus
and Kyrgyzstan did not sign the accord on military alliance with Russia
and four other Central Asian countries, during the Tashkent meeting. But
Armenia did, and the implications of this have yet to be realized.
A further, and very important factor, concerns
the high interest all member states display towards the West. They are
all eager to be accepted as soon as possible as full members in the world
community and to profit from Western financial support. Thus, they cannot
dismiss Western anxiety at the possibility of new conflicts and uncontrolled
developments in the CIS that may lead to a whole new array of dangers.
The shrinking community
Still, disintegration trends clearly dominate the integration
elements, the former having acquired their own dynamic as the latter remained
static or are even diminishing in importance. The key role here is played
by the national political elites. As has already been pointed out, the very
logic of the formation of these elites, as well as the desire to consolidate
their power, induce them to limit the participation of their countries in
common CIS institutions, and often to neglect their long-term common interests
with other republics. Besides, there is a widespread feeling in some republics
that such institutions as the joint command of the CIS military forces serve
mainly, if not uniquely, the interests of Moscow.
The experts of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow
were right to stress in one of their studies: "The Commonwealth has resulted
from the disintegration of a unitary state burdened by tensions built
up over years. It did not result from a desire of newly independent states
to form a union. Consequently, factors in favour of integration are weak,
controversial and unreliable, and cannot function automatically".
Ukraine and some other CIS members states will
stay in the CIS as long as they are forced to do so by the multiple ties
still binding them to Russia and other republics. But not a moment longer.
Such a "community out of necessity" cannot function really well or last
for long. As Kravchuk has repeatedly stressed, the CIS is, for him, merely
a mechanism for divorce.
In fact, the CIS has not fulfilled any of the main
aims for which it was established, not even the one of an effective bankruptcy
court.It has failed to prevent conflict between Moscow and Kiev.
It has failed to coordinate its members' economic
and foreign policies, to conserve a common military and defence structure.
It has failed to halt or to prevent civil wars on the territory of the
former Soviet Union. Finally, it has failed to solve the basic problem
of the Soviet nuclear heritage.
Of course, Moscow and the CIS joint command claim
to retain all the controls and access to nuclear weapons stationed in
Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and there is no reason to doubt this. But the
CIS was powerless when, last March, Leonid Kravchuk decided to suspend
the withdrawal from Ukraine of the remaining 2,390 tactical nuclear weapons
stationed on his territory in spite of its own formal obligations and
the agreements reached by the CIS leaders at their Alma Ata and Minsk
The removal of these weapons was resumed only a
month later when Kiev met with a strong resistance from the United States
to such "nuclear games". And it was during their visits to Washington
that Kravchuk and Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev were persuaded to stop
playing with the idea of keeping strategic missiles in their republics.
Still, the question remains. As Ukraine has committed
itself to become nuclear-free only by the end of a seven-year period,
may it not be tempted to go back on its commitment somewhere in the future,
especially in case of a sharp conflict with Russia? There are reported
to be some 176 ballistic missiles carrying 1,514 warheads that are still
on its territory.
The chances for the survival of the CIS in its
present shape are minimal. It looks more and more like a shell progressively
emptied of its contents. Its most probable future seems to be a loss of
such members as Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan, which will draw a final
line under the Commonwealth's short history. Another possible scenario
is the formation inside it of a nucleus of states, still attracted by
cooperation and the marginalization of the others.
A new community, reduced in size, may eventually
appear in its place. It will probably represent a more or less loose association
of states, with Russia and Kazakhstan at its core as a fairly stable entity.
Its functions will then be restricted to areas of mutual interest in the
military, economic, transport, energy, and information fields.
Russia and the West
In the Moscow-Kiev-Alma Ata triangle that defines the
CIS structure, Moscow, for evident reasons, is a priority for the West.
Yet Russia is currently facing three sets of dangers - disintegration or
a loss of important territories, economic collapse, and the possibility
of a new dictatorial regime. While all eyes have been turned on the disintegration
of the Soviet Union, few people have yet become aware of the potential disintegration
of the Russian Federation. The recent separatist attempts in the North Caucasus
and Tatarstan are but small examples of a much greater potential problem.
Everything seems to confirm that Russia has already
passed the point of no return on its way to a market economy. What can
be questioned is the future of democratic institutions in the country.
From November to April, the overall level of prices for industrial products
rose by 940 per cent, and for food products by 1,218 per cent (for fish
2,100 per cent, milk 1,600, butter 4,900, cheese 3,200 and eggs 1,400
per cent). A further dramatic price jump is awaited after the planned
freeing of oil and gas prices.
The people are terrorized by extremely high crime
rates. Increasingly, Russians describe what is happening by the term "bespredel"
which means "no limits" (in a negative sense; a current joke in Moscow
goes as follows: What is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?
The pessimist says "things can't get any worse". The optimist replies,
"Oh yes they can".
The optimists seem to be right on this occasion.
In 1992, the level of industrial output, which fell by 14 per cent last
year, will probably go down by a further 30 per cent, and unemployment
may reach 10-15 per cent, areas of high concentration of military industry
being particulary hard hit.
In such conditions, one cannot exclude the possibility
of a new dictatorship coming to power in Moscow. But for the time being,
such a danger seems to be rather remote. What, on the contrary, seems
highly probable is a shift of power from democratic reformers to pragmatic
technocrats within the present political setting. A new government of
this type would be supported by the military-industrial complex, the bosses
of the big state-owned enterprises, the army and state bureaucracy. It
would not go back to the classic version of command economy, and would
stick to the market orientation. But it would opt not so much for a free
market and the development of entrepreneurial activities, but for a version
of state capitalism, using command methods, which is much closer to the
Russian tradition than liberal capitalism.
Such a scenario would not necessarily result in
profound changes in Russian foreign policy nor a new confrontation with
the West. In fact, such a confrontation is very unlikely. Moscow does
not have any resources for it. Besides, most political forces in Russia
understand nowadays that the country cannot do without Western help and
foreign investment. The economy of the communist type is too deeply discredited
to be able to be resurrected. But one could predict the strengthening
of conservative and patriotic trends, which tend to be tough on the Western
and the CIS countries if they are thought to threaten Russian national
Western assistance evidently cannot play a decisive
role in redressing the Russian economy. But it is extremely important
politically and psychologically by making Russia feel it is not left on
its own. Recent calls in the West to refrain from such assistance until
Russia makes substantial progress in reforms, miss the point completely.
They can only strengthen isolationist and anti-Western trends in the country.
Of course, the IMF may insist that Russia does
not step away from its programme of radical market reform. But it has
to be fully understood that the process of reform in Russia cannot be
but extremely contradictory, moving in fits and starts and marked by a
lot of pressures. It is not in Western interest to add external pressures
to the internal ones, as after a certain critical point it can ruin the
whole process. Russia tries painfully to accommodate itself to the West
and for the success of this attempt, the West, for its part, has to accommodate
itself to the new Russia.
The announcement of the 24 billion dollar package
for Russia has already politically helped Boris Yeltsin and his reform
team. But this package must not be the end, rather the beginning of a
long-term economic and financial effort by the West to pull Russia out
of the economic quagmire. Besides the development of the private sector,
investment in restructur-ing the Russian economy and especially in conversion
is absolutely essential.
There are also important opportunities for the
NATO countries, and especially the US, to limit the risks inherent in
the present state of the CIS. They can engage, for instance, in an active
political dialogue with Ukraine in order to make it abide by its nuclear
commitments and help minimize political disagreements with Moscow, thus
preventing the danger of a Yugoslavization of relations between these
The Russian 19th century thinker Petr Chaadayev,
once said that Russia was designed by God to serve as a lesson to the
rest of humanity. Russia has already fulfilled this role. Let us not give
her another chance to teach new tragic lessons to itself and to the world.
© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation