Amid the usual diplomatic exchanges during Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Armenia there was noteworthy nugget of information: the Russian leader acknowledged publicly that the Commonwealth of Independent States is not a viable organization for the promotion of political and economic integration.
Putin paid an official visit to Armenia on March 24-25. Responding to a reporter's question about the CIS's effectiveness as a working international confederation, Putin declared that "if someone was expecting some particular achievements from the CIS in, say, the economy, in political or military cooperation and so on, it is clear that this was not going to happen because it could not happen."
The CIS's task, Putin told a March 25 press conference in Yerevan, was to "make the Soviet Union's collapse as civilized and smooth as possible." In this, the Russian leader argued, the confederation succeeded.
But, Putin stressed, other groupings of post-Soviet nations, in particular the Eurasian Economic Community and the Common Economic Space, are now in better position to foster free-trade and intergration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The CIS itself, he noted, is "a very useful club for exchanging information and discussing general problems."
Putin's remarks appear to be connected to the growing anti-Russian stance assumed by three CIS countries Georgia and Ukraine, where popular uprisings in November 2003 and December 2004, respectively, swept away the post-Soviet political order, and Moldova, whose pro-Western communist leader, President Vladimir Voronin, has turned away from Moscow over the Trans-Dniester region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nonetheless, the Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta's March 29 characterization of Putin's statement as "the funeral of the CIS" seems extreme. By acknowledging the organization's shortcomings, Putin may be attempting to prevent the defection of discontent CIS members, and arrest the steady erosion of Russia's geopolitical position.
Putin's statements in no way indicate a shift in Russia's desire to retain influence in the so-called "near abroad." Putin and Armenian President Robert Kocharian both emphasized the desirability of increased Russian participation in the economy of the South Caucasus. "What we are talking about here is a new quality of cooperation that will have regional significance and scale, and I am convinced that we have a lot of potential to draw on here," Kocharian said.
No major agreements emerged from the Yerevan summit, but multiple economic issues are now shaping bilateral ties. Plans to build an Iranian-Armenian natural gas pipeline have long been a source of concern for the Kremlin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian energy heavyweight GazProm, which supplies Armenia with all of its gas, recently expressed interest in taking part in the project. On the Armenian side, strong objections exist to efforts by another Russian energy player, United Energy Systems, to purchase the country's electricity distribution network.
Both Putin and Kocharian avoided energy issues during their press-conference, focusing instead on Russian plans to ship goods to Armenia via the Georgian port of Poti as an indication of one of several areas, including banking, where there are "good prospects for growth."
Expectations also ran high in Yerevan that some agreement would be reached for the reopening of those Armenian companies that passed into Russian hands under a 2002 debt-for-equity deal, but no official announcement was made of such a plan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Cultural ties could provide important reinforcement for any expanded economic cooperation (the official reason for Putin's Yerevan trip was Armenia's Year of Russia, a celebration of Russian culture). But, even here, playing off regional rivalries remains part of Moscow's game. Armenia may be Russia's main military ally in the South Caucasus, and 2005 is the Year of Russia in Yerevan. Yet in Russia, it is the Year of Azerbaijan.
Putin, during the news conference, spoke of a need to foster an "atmosphere of confidence" throughout the Caucasus that would enhance conflict resolution prospects. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Putin added that his talks with Kocharian touched on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. "Everybody is looking forward to the continuation of direct contacts between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan," the Russian president said.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.