Saturday, 10 May 2014

Can the CIS Survive the Ukraine Crisis?


The death of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been foretold many times during its history of (now) more than 20 years. Dissatisfaction with its weak and confusing institutional structure and a failure to promote effective regional integration has become an almost permanent background to its existence. Despite the remarkable resilience of the CIS, there are several signs suggesting that the current crisis is more fundamental and extreme than previous shake-ups.

Firstly, the present crisis focuses on a founding member of the CIS, Ukraine. It is important to remember that the very CIS formula came into being at the secret Belovezhskaia Pushcha meeting between Presidents Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich of 8 December 1991 in order to accommodate Ukraine’s refusal to participate in a reformed Union,[i] and was very much ‘thrust upon’ the other former Soviet republics. Arguably, Ukraine was instrumental in shaping the design and ultimately the limits of the CIS in its gradual institutionalisation in the early 1990s. It did not sign the Charter of the CIS in January 1993 but took an active role in its drafting and, as President Kravchuk stated, considered itself a ‘member of the CIS, actively participating in its improvement’.[ii] 

In March 2014 the Ukrainian authorities announced the termination of their presidency of the CIS and their intention to leave the organization altogether. Indeed, a bill on the denunciation of the CIS Founding Agreement was introduced into the Rada by MP Boris Tarasyuk. Georgia had withdrawn from the CIS previously, in August 2008. In legal terms, both countries’ membership was of a peculiar nature, as neither had fully met the conditions of the Charter requiring 1) participation in the founding agreements of December 1991 (fulfilled by Ukraine but not by Georgia), and 2) ‘assuming the obligations under the Charter’ within a year of its adoption (fulfilled by Georgia but not by Ukraine). Nonetheless, the importance of the withdrawal of a founding member of the organization could not be overstated in the CIS world of ‘casual legality’ but high political symbolism.

Secondly, Ukraine’s pending withdrawal rests on a charge that the CIS and its institutions have failed to address the Crimean crisis, that, in other words, rather than exercising its most basic function of promoting dialogue, the peaceful resolution of disputes and cooperation, the CIS has turned into Russia’s puppet. In the beginning of March 2014, the Ukraine had called for an extraordinary meeting of the CIS Foreign Ministers Council in Kiev to discuss the crisis. The request was denied by the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which instead approved an alternative proposal for a meeting of deputy Foreign Ministers in Minsk. This was deemed as unacceptable by Ukraine, which challenged the de jure as well as de facto ability of the CIS to function.

Indeed, it is clear that the multilateral structures of the CIS have been marginalised and that the response to the crisis has been driven by one-to-one dialogue at the highest level. When the Foreign Ministers Council met in Moscow on 4 April, it dealt with the vacant presidency of the CIS, but did not engage in any formal Ukraine-related effort. In fact, the principal decision-making bodies of the CIS, the Councils of Heads of State and Government, have not held a formal meeting since 25 October 2013 and 20 November 2013 respectively.

According to the Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman, Ukraine’s March request was supported only by Kishinev; in a recent interview she noted that the situation called for a ‘very thorough analysis and evaluation of what has happened within the CIS’. Other leaders were predictably more restrained. The Belarusian President Lukashenka recently described the situation as ‘not very simple’, but proceeded to reject a break-up of the organization despite half-heartedly acknowledging problems. Meanwhile, as argued by Farkhad Tolipov, Russia’s disregard of multilateralism was not lost on the Central Asian countries.

President Putin held a meeting with the Presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgzstan, Russia and Tajikistan on 8 May 2014 – all of them members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Rather than a formal gathering of the organization, this was a ‘talking down to’ at Russia’s invitation, and Kazakhstan’s absence is yet to be deciphered. Nonetheless, the meeting betrayed the concerns of even loyal supporters of the Russian position – like Armenian President Sargsyan - about the need for more coordination and multilateralism in responding to foreign policy crises.

Thirdly, the Ukraine crisis challenges the very premises of the post-Soviet settlement: the principles of national sovereignty, independent statehood, and territorial integrity embodied in the CIS founding agreements. As Tolipov notes, unlike the Crimean case, the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 did not lead to annexation by Russia. And while the fact of Crimea’s annexation has largely been accepted by the CIS member states, their reaction has not been as definite, unambiguous and resolute as Russia might have wanted. Certainly, for many of them - especially those with a sizeable Russian minority - the post-Soviet settlement is not a safe and secure option anymore.

Fourthly, Russia’s specific interest in the CIS is not easy to fathom. While Ukraine has certainly been very selective in its participation in the organisation,[iii] Russia has been discerning too: for example, it never ratified the 1994 and 1999 Free Trade Agreements concluded within the organisation. In March 2005, Putin stated that ‘the CIS never had any supertasks (sverkhzadach) of an economic nature, any integration tasks in the sphere of economics’. As Tolipov aptly points out, in his 18 March 2014 speech, Putin delegitimized the CIS even further: by arguing that Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union was illegal, he also challenged the very legality of the Commonwealth. Perhaps not incidentally, Putin’s latest address to the Federal Assembly, on 12 December 2013, mentioned the CIS only in relation to educational cooperation. Putin’s recent agenda has focused primarily on building a Eurasian (Economic) Union, implying the hollowing out of previously important organizations, such as EvrAzES. While some continuity will be provided within the Eurasian Economic Union, the future status of non-Customs Union members of EvrAzES remains unclear.

Yet, despite Russia’s fairly opaque position on the CIS, it has developed a key interest in the 2011 Free Trade agreement, and particularly in its perceived incompatibility with Ukraine’s signature of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. In a newly discovered concern for legality (and in contrast with previous casual attitudes to CIS agreements and, indeed, Putin’s above-mentioned statement on the organisation’s limited economic role), Ukraine was accused of violating Article 13 of the 2011 CIS FTA.

It is evident that despite Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurances of ‘not keeping anyone in the CIS by force’, Ukraine’s possible exit from the organization needs to be viewed in the context of the ‘carrot and stick’ policy employed in securing Putin’s geopolitical vision. Given the ‘variable geometry’ principle in signing agreements in the CIS, a withdrawal from the 8 December 1991 Agreement would not automatically imply an exit from other arrangements. Indeed, the stated intention of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is to analyse individual agreements and determine ‘the feasibility of Ukraine’s further participation’ in them. Yet, this decision might require a more complex cost/benefit calculation. As Viktor Medvedchuk, a well-known protagonist of Russia’s interests in the country noted: ‘Ukraine’s withdrawal …will lead to a sharp decline in investments in the Ukrainian economy from CIS countries, primarily Russia. Ukraine’s withdrawal from the organization will also mean leaving the CIS free trade zone’. Thus, Ukraine’s approach of selective withdrawal from its CIS commitments might not work without advances in the geopolitical, EU-Russia stalemate resulting from the current crisis.  

What does all this mean for the CIS? Is a regional crisis of this depth and magnitude likely to doom it as an organisation? This author’s bets – at this stage in the developments surrounding the Ukrainian conflict – are on its survival. Firstly, the resilience of the CIS is embedded in its extremely loose institutional framework and the ability of its members to define their membership as they see fit. In fact, in comparative terms, the CIS is the ultimate institutional chameleon. Secondly, in the two decades of post-Soviet regional integration, Russia has proved that it rarely ‘keeps all its eggs in one basket’. It has invested in a range of regional organizations, and despite the current salience of the Eurasian Economic Union, there is no reason to assume that other vehicles will not be assigned appropriate uses. Currently, the CIS is also the only Russia-centred grouping incorporating countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Thirdly, the long-term tendency of region-level post-Soviet institutional development has been one of strong continuity. Organisations are frequently and incrementally reformed or renamed, but rarely completely reinvented, as aptly demonstrated by the evolution of the Eurasian Customs Union’s institutional regime.[iv] Thus, it is unlikely that the CIS will disappear without a fundamental and deep reform of the underlying political, economic and socio-legal orders within the majority of its member states. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that recent events will significantly deepen the crisis of purpose and credibility the CIS had been experiencing beforehand.



[i] E Walker, Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Break-Up of the Soviet Union (Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2003)
[ii] Diplomaticheskii Vestnik, 3-4 (1993): 42
[iii] R. Dragneva and A. Dimitrova, ‘Patterns of Integration and Regime Compatibility: Ukraine between the CIS and the EU’, in K. Malfliet, L. Verpoest & E. Vinokurov, eds., The CIS, the EU and Russia: Challenges of Integration (Palgrave/Macmillan), 171-201
[iv] R.Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, ‘Commitment, asymmetry and flexibility: making sense of Eurasian economic integration’, in R. Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, eds., Eurasian Economic Integration: Law, Policy and Politics (Edward Elgar 2013), 204-221

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