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Politics

Members starting to back away from Commonwealth of Independent States

By Ksenia Bondal

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video meeting with heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States at the Novo-Ogarevo state residence outside Moscow on October 15. [Evgeny Paulin/Sputnik/AFP]

ALMATY -- The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has proved to be a dysfunctional organisation incapable of resolving political disputes among its members, say observers.

Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in December 1991 created the CIS.

At present, it includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is an associate member.

Georgia withdrew from the CIS in 2009, and Ukraine stopped participating in 2018.

Both countries have reason to shun blocs led by Vladimir Putin's Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

"Initially, the CIS was conceived as a new union, a confederal association. But then CIS member states scattered to different rooms," said Ruslan Bortnik of Kyiv, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics.

"Many countries stopped co-operating with the [CIS]. One of the key factors in this was the [low] quality of Russian leaders in the 1990s," he said in an interview with RIA Novosti published December 8.

"Everyone saw that the CIS proved to be a dysfunctional organisation," he said. "The legal foundation works in some places. But political problems in the post-Soviet space of the CIS turned out to be insurmountable."

"All this led to the organisation's decline in general and Ukraine's exit in particular," he said.

Declining allegiance to Russia

The CIS functioned just as a transitional organisation as countries moved out of the weak Soviet Union into full-fledged independent states, said Gaziz Abishev, a Nur-Sultan-based political observer.

Presidents now meet within the CIS, but the level of conflict within the commonwealth is too high, he said.

"Ukraine withdrew because it aspires to join NATO and the European Union. It has no relations with the CIS's main country -- Russia," he said.

"Georgia holds the same position. Azerbaijan is gravitating towards Turkey ... Turkmenistan is entirely neutral."

"Most of the other CIS countries are united by other organisations like the EEU [Eurasian Economic Union] and the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organisation]," Abishev said, referring to other Russia-led blocs.

The CIS is just a signboard and it will continue to decline unless new momentum arises, he said.

For example, a generation loyal to Russia will not appear in Ukraine, Georgia or Azerbaijan, Abishev said.

"Our [first Kazakh] president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, put forward several initiatives under the CIS, but [Russian then-President Boris] Yeltsin was not receptive," he said. "Kazakhstan was even squeezed out of Russia's ruble zone."

"Russia's views on integration, which held that its neighbours were just its backyard and had nowhere to go, weakened the CIS," Abishev added.

Sluggish existence

The CIS will not collapse in the near future but will instead remain in its current sluggish state, predicted Madiyar Kenzhebulat, a Nur-Sultan resident and chief researcher of the Centre for Macroeconomic Research and Forecasting.

Russia holds the greatest weight in the commonwealth and considers it a zone of heightened interest, so for Moscow it is important to preserve the association and to keep influencing member states, he said.

It must also be understood that other states in the CIS have their own interests in belonging to the association, said Kenzhebulat, adding that each state's level of CIS integration varies.

First, there are the small countries that will not be able to develop sustainably in the long term without integration with stronger neighbours, he said.

"Central Asian countries are constantly faced with a choice -- be with Russia or be with China -- which, as a result of systematic expansion and without a war, may simply 'swallow' them in a few decades," he said.

Kazakhstan has only 19 million citizens, and their purchasing power is small. Accordingly, joining various economic associations scales up the markets where it can sell its products, he continued. The country's leadership made this bet when it joined the EEU.

"But ... for various reasons, we have not yet been able to enjoy the supposed advantages," said Kenzhebulat. "The EEU eliminates tariff barriers in the form of customs duties, but Russia often uses non-tariff barriers... The Russian Federation is selling its goods more and more in our market."

Second, CIS countries have seen that Russia will use all its might to keep former Soviet republics from escaping its influence.

"The example of Ukraine and Georgia shows that they will have to face political, economic and military measures from Russia," he said.

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Kazakhstan should steer clear of Russia. Even China is not as potentially dangerous in terms of loss of sovereignty as Russia.

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It's a dead organization already - a signboard.

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