Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 3 - Jun. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 13-18


Alexei Pushkov,
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 Union.

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 complex heritage.

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 the Commonwealth.

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 future.

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 attention.

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 summits.

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 interests.

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 two countries.

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 1992.