Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Commonwealth of Independent States

Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Commonwealth of Independent States

Article excerpt

It seems to be almost instinctual to attempt to create a successor organization to a dissolved empire. The English smoothly moved from Empire to the British Commonwealth, the French to Francophone Community, and the Portuguese have recently announced the formation of a Luso League. The creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, therefore, can be seen as a reflex action as much as a deep-dyed plan to reestablish Moscow's authority or a far-sighted liberal dream of a new, consensual form of regional relationship.

Certainly prominent military and civilian figures in Moscow, soon to be leaders of the new Russian Federation, were the originators and instigators of the CIS project, and it is reasonable to assume that these individuals and institutions each had different agendas, from empire to commonwealth to personal motives. The last category probably included tactical political calculations by Boris Yelstin in his competition with Gorbachev for Russian leadership. The dissolution of the USSR left Gorbachev with no role or status while conversely transferring to Yelstin, as leader of the new Russian Federation, the governance powers inside Russia hitherto belonging to Gorbachev as chief of state of the USSR. The CIS, then, offered Yeltsin at least a potential formal role in the neighboring countries where Gorbachev had exercised sovereign powers.

The various Russian sponsors of the CIS proposed different and often competing characters for that organization: military, economic, financial, even cultural. None has taken firm shape, although the military has been the most prominent, partially because of a lack of consistency on the part of the Russian Government. A recent development has been the effort, or at least the interest, of some members of the CIS to attempt to leverage their membership to influence Russian behavior and policy. Most successful in this has been Georgian President Shevardnadze who has managed to use the CIS forum to bring pressure on Russia in the spring and summer of 1997 to help end the Sbkhazian secession. Meanwhile, outsiders in Western Europe and the United States have been uncertain how to deal with this Russian regional innovation, but through NATO's Partnership for Peace have pursued a somewhat independent new relationship with many of the members of the CIS. Not unlike the proverbial elephant, therefore, the CIS appears to be a very different creature to different observers such as Russians, other CIS members, the United Nations, and Americans.


From its beginning, the CIS has pursued three major themes: membership, institution building, and--most ambiguous and yet most important of all--role seeking. The last item can be encapsulated in the question, "Commonwealth or Empire?" framed by William Odom and Robert Dujarric in the title of their Hudson Institute study. Indeed, Russian policy toward the CIS often has been ambivalent, reflecting the internal debate between the neo-Communist and imperial forces and the liberal reform movement. The leadership of the other countries has been equally ambivalent and changeable, with the old "apparachik" figures anxious to retain as much as possible of the ties and policies of the USSR, while the more nationalist and reform forces seek greater actual independence.

In Moscow, the CIS was viewed as an instrument of Russian policy toward Central Asia and the Caucasus, although there was little agreement on the character of the desired relationship--commonwealth or empire or something in between. In Central Asia the old Communist elites still in power wanted to continue with the old command arrangements and limit democratic political expansion, while obtaining a degree of local authority for themselves. Kazakhstan's president was especially forceful in pushing this policy of a strong, highly integrated CIS--"a new Soviet Union with local autonomy" (1)--but it failed to develop rapidly or institutionally. …

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