Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Former Soviet republics find freedom has its price

Marina Shakina, Russian Information Agency Novosti, Moscow

Ten years ago, early in December, Belovezhye agreements were signed, initiating the break-up of the Soviet Union and creation of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A meeting of CIS heads of state opening in Moscow on Nov. 30 is therefore a jubilee one.

Despite an extensive working agenda, including economic and military cooperation, coordination of security and other matters, the heads of state will have to pay substantial attention to summing up 10 years of the commonwealth.

Over the past 10 years the 12 countries that came together to form the commonwealth have gone through several stages of development. The early years following the disbandment of the Union were full of euphoria and exhilaration. Former Soviet republics did not particularly hesitate to rupture economic, political and cultural ties that had existed for decades, and started enthusiastically looking for new friends, mainly in the West.

Russia, the power engine of integration, often made substantive political and economic concessions contrary to its national interests only not to antagonize and to keep in its orbit commonwealth friends and allies. It was doing this despite the new states frequently pursuing a line towards a dominant "titular" nation. This resulted in suppression of Russians and Russian speakers in former Soviet republics, which led to a massive exodus of the Russian population to Russia.

The turning point came several years later -- realizing that they are not much needed in the West, the former Union's republics turned their eyes on each other and came to the conclusion that integration in the space of the former USSR made sense and had serious economic grounds. In those years integration within the CIS framework was multi-speed, with commonwealth countries forming "affinity" groups.

A customs union of four members came into being, comprising Russia, Byelorussia, Kirghizia and Kazakhstan. Later it was joined by Tajikistan. At the end of last year the five countries declared the formation of a Eurasian Economic Community.

Two republics conscious of the need for the tightest possible cooperation -- Russia and Byelorussia -- formed a union between them. They coordinate their economic and foreign policies, and their citizens are not considered foreigners -- Byelorussians in Russia or Russians in Byelorussia respectively. Moscow and Minsk are also planning to have a common currency.

Another newly formed group was GUUAM (Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldavia), countries that clubbed together around the idea of transporting Caspian energy sources to Europe.

Since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999, integration has acquired new accents. From now on Russia as a CIS member prioritizes own benefits and interests. Moscow has tightened up immigration policy, withdrawn from a no-visa travel treaty and now concludes appropriate bilateral agreements with republics. With Georgia, which has given shelter to Chechen terrorists, Moscow has introduced a visa regime.

Russia had its way in settling Ukraine's gas debts. It continued integration with Byelorussia and to foster the Eurasian Economic Community. Some reports say a country seeking to join it is Moldavia, which used to prosper within the USSR and then went through a devastating economic crisis and built up a huge energy debt to Russia.

While 10 years ago democratic-minded quarters in commonwealth countries welcomed the Belovezhye accords and collapse of the USSR as an ultimate end to the totalitarian monster, the former Soviet republics are now more nostalgic about the past than ever before. This is due to many hard problems that faced practically all republics as they pulled out of the union.

No politician now ventures to predict the future of the CIS. The most-often repeated forecast is a gradual dying off of the commonwealth that has been an instrument of civilized divorce for the former Soviet republics. There is, however, a different point of view -- the commonwealth will get second wind because of the rallying character of economic interests and the keenness to feel secure in an era of global terrorism.

At any rate, it is characteristic that all state leaders -- even such as Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze and Turkmenia's leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who used often to ignore summits or to declare their withdrawal from the CIS from time to time -- will arrive for the anniversary meeting.