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Meeting in the wilds of Belarus on 8 December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus announced the creation of a new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on the ruins of the crumbling USSR. Two weeks later, on 21 December 1991, the presidents of 11 former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) met in Almaty and signed a protocol to that declaration affirming their countries' membership in the CIS.

The ink was barely dry on those signatures when skeptics began questioning how long that new union would last. Shortly after its first anniversary, in January 1993, U.S. expert Paul Goble memorably dubbed the CIS "the world's largest fig leaf," alluding to the need to conceal the final collapse of Moscow's influence over the country it had controlled since the USSR was first created in 1922. Russian politicians, however, including President Vladimir Putin, have tended to put a positive spin on the emergence of the CIS as a mechanism for ensuring a "civilized divorce," in other words, for enabling the various former Soviet Socialist Republics to agree, without bloodshed, to go their separate ways.

Initially, every effort was made to preserve cooperation between CIS member states at a level close to that which existed within the USSR. In May 1992, six CIS member states (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) signed the CIS Collective Security Treaty pledging to intervene collectively to counter an attack on any one of them; a CIS armed forces general staff continued to exist until mid-1993. But from the outset, the CIS was split into two factions, the first of which (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) was markedly more committed than the others (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine). Azerbaijan quit the CIS in 1992 following the advent to power of the Azerbaijan Popular Front (AHC), but rejoined in late 1993 after the AHC leadership was ousted. Georgia was coerced into joining in late 1993 by Russian threats to withhold energy supplies.

In January 1993, the CIS presidents adopted a new charter and statutes, and in September of that year they reached agreement in principle on creating an economic union. But already the centrifugal tendencies that precipitated the collapse of the USSR were evident within the CIS: Uzbek President Islam Karimov complained in April 1993 that the CIS had already adopted 270 documents that his country found unacceptable and would not abide by. Writing in "Rossiiskie vesti" in December 1996, one commentator note that "implementing one [CIS] agreement is more difficult than signing 10 new ones."

The process of signing ever more documents that were never implemented nonetheless continued for several years, until at a CIS summit in late March 1997, hard-line Russian political scientists Andranik Migranian and Konstantin Zatulin unveiled a program intended to restore Russia's status as unacknowledged leader within the CIS. Warning that the CIS risks becoming "a fiction," they advocated radical measures, including the deliberate destabilization of the domestic political situation within selected CIS states (Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan), to reverse the perceived drift of the former Soviet republics away from Russia. They argued that the founders of the CIS had committed a fundamental error by selecting the wrong (from Russia's point of view) model, namely EU-style integration, and that reunification of the two Germanies would have been far more appropriate.

That blueprint set off alarm bells across the CIS, and served as the catalyst for the foundation in late 1997 of GUAM, a loose geo-political alignment encompassing Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova; Uzbekistan acceded to GUAM in April 1999.

In a possible acknowledgement that the scare tactics espoused by Migranian and Zatulin had proven counterproductive, in April 1998, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii was appointed CIS executive secretary with a brief to persuade the CIS presidents to endorse, and then implement, a blueprint for closer and more effective economic cooperation, beginning with the creation of one or more CIS free-trade zones. (An agreement in principle to form such zones had been signed in April 1994, but shared the same fate as hundreds of other collective statements of intent that were signed but never implemented.) Meanwhile, the "core" CIS states -- Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, which had formed a customs union in 1995 to which Kyrgyzstan acceded the following year -- were mulling the creation of a Single Economic Space together with Ukraine.

Two developments seemed to infuse new vitality into the CIS, albeit only briefly: the election of Vladimir Putin to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russian president, and the creation in November 2001 of a CIS Antiterrrorism Center. Then in 2003, the CIS drafted, but failed to endorse, a new 10-part plan for expanding economic cooperation, the first stage of which was to be the creation of a free-trade zone. That failure to move decisively forward prompted Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of closer CIS integration in both the economic and political spheres, to propose at a CIS summit in Astana in September 2004 transforming the Single Economic Space into the nucleus of a "super-CIS" while the remaining CIS members confined their cooperation within that body to the military sphere. Nazarbaev also proposed other measures to streamline the CIS and make it more effective, including abolishing the CIS Economic Court and several other bodies and reducing the staff of the CIS Executive Committee from 220 to 140, according to "Vremya novostei" on 17 September 2004. The summit participants agreed to reach a final decision on Nazarbaev's reform proposals within 12 months.

In the event, however, last week's CIS summit in Kazan failed yet again to yield a consensus on reform; the participants decided to readdress the issue at their next summit, tentatively scheduled for 2006 in Belarus. Putin proposed establishing a "council of wise men" to draft new, unspecified proposals for reforming the CIS. (An alternative blueprint for reform drafted by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was reportedly not included in the agenda.) Despite the ongoing uncertainty, however, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin described the Kazan summit as one of the most productive ever, according to "The Moscow Times" on 29 August.

That comment may, however, prove to be premature in light of two related developments. First, in line with its predilection for structuring its foreign policy exclusively on bilateral, rather than multilateral ties and agreements, Turkmenistan has finally admitted its total lack of interest in the CIS and formally requested that its status be downgraded to that of associate member. (Article 8 of the CIS Statutes adopted in January 1993 provides for states with such associate membership to participate in selected CIS activities with the formal consent of the CIS full members). Some might argue that the effective exclusion of Turkmenistan from the CIS equation is a positive development insofar as it removes an obstacle to closer and more effective economic integration. Others, however, might see it as the thin end of a much larger wedge -- a wedge that the unequivocally Western-oriented CIS members, in the first instance Georgia and Ukraine, might seek to use at some future point to deal the coup de grace by announcing their collective withdrawal.

One unfortunate incident at the summit's opening ceremony on 26 August -- shown on Russian television -- perfectly symbolized the CIS's dilemma. The presidents gathered in a magnificent new conference center only to find the air conditioning did not function and the windows would not open. Putin, perspiring visibly, looked on as a workman wielding a crowbar was summoned to force open a window and let in some fresh air -- a commodity without which the CIS will suffocate, sooner or later. The question being, which president will wield the crowbar?

OPPOSITION PARTY SLAMS CHOICE OF RUSSIAN IN DEUTSCHE WELLE BROADCASTS TO BELARUS. The Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) has criticized the European Commission's decision to finance a Deutsche Welle Russian-language program for Belarus (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 24 and 30 August 2005), Belapan reported on 29 August. Noting that programs created by Belarusians for Belarusians are the most effective way to reach the Belarusian audience, the BNF stresses in a statement that the European Commission's decision shows a lack of understanding of the socio-linguistic situation in Belarus. "The choice of a language other than Belarusian to broadcast to Belarus is an ineffective decision and a political signal that may be regarded as an expression of solidarity with [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka's policy of rooting out the Belarusian language and representing Belarus as part of the sphere of Russian influence," the statement reads. The BNF urges the European Commission to reconsider its decision. JM

UKRAINE, U.S. AGREE TO COUNTER PROLIFERATION OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) announced in Kyiv on 29 August that the United States and Ukraine agreed to counter the threat of bioterrorism and to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons, technology, materials, and expertise, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. Under the agreement Washington will assist Kyiv in upgrading the security for pathogens currently stored at Ukrainian laboratories as well as in reducing the time required to diagnose disease outbreaks in Ukraine and assessing whether they are natural or the result of a terrorist act. "This agreement will help Ukraine improve its capacity to diagnose, detect, and respond to public health threats by providing Ukraine with more modern, central reference libraries and a network of regional epidemiological monitoring stations as well as enhancing cooperation between our two nations," U.S. Senator Barack Obama (Democrat, Illinois), who was traveling with Lugar, told journalists in Kyiv. JM