Russian policy makers are striving to develop a post-CIS paradigm, in which Moscow distinguishes between "loyal" and "disloyal" neighbors and uses its economic power, namely is energy resources, to reward the Kremlin's friends and to punish its antagonists within the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Despite an attempt to put an optimistic spin on the latest CIS summit in late August, most Russian policy makers have concluded that the CIS is no longer salvageable as an institution that can advance the Kremlin's political and economic agenda in the former Soviet space. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the creation of a panel of experts that would consider ways to revamp the organization in a manner more satisfactory to the Kremlin. But even while that proposal moves forward, Russian officials and experts are mulling alternatives that would enable Russia to more efficiently expand its economic reach in the region.
There is a general consensus within Russia's policy-making community that the CIS has divided into two camps one open to cooperation with Moscow and the other eager to keep the Kremlin at arm's length. Policy makers in Moscow are now debating the best ways to leverage Russia's considerable economic assets, in particular its energy resources, and its geographic position to its greatest advantage.
The pro-Russian camp is generally recognized as comprising Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is also widely believed to be tilting toward Russia, but the country's government, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has long pursued a policy that has played China, Russia and the United States off against each other. Those CIS countries that eye Russia warily dubbed by some Russian commentators as the "orange camp" -- include Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Azerbaijan tends to gravitate toward this pro-Western grouping.
Meanwhile, post-revolutionary Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical orientation is seen by many in Moscow as to be determined. Some observers argue that Bishkek is currently vacillating between the two camps, causing it to be viewed suspiciously by both.
For Russian policy makers, the effort to develop a new blueprint for dealing with former Soviet states accelerated after a mid-August meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Borjomi, Georgia. At that meeting, Saakashvili and Yushchenko -- who respectively led 2003's Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 -- announced a plan to create the Commonwealth of Democratic Choice, which, they suggested, should unite "all democratic states in the Baltic, Black Sea and Caspian regions."
They also signed a declaration to promote the integration of the Baltic-Black Sea-Caspian area into the Euro-Atlantic community. With this strategic goal in mind, they invited the leaders of the countries in the region to come to Ukraine this fall for a summit. Russia, unlike the United States, was invited only as an observer. During an informal visit in Crimea on August 18, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania indicated their support for the project.
In his August 25 interview with the Tatar-inform agency, Yushchenko said the move to establish a Commonwealth of Democratic Choice was not rooted in a desire to team up against other countries. Its aim, he contended, was to promote human rights and to open new avenues of political and economic cooperation for the Baltic-Black Sea-Caspian region, as well as to promote the settlement of the "frozen" conflicts including those involving the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Needless to say, the Kremlin is decidedly unenthused about the "orange camp's" initiative to settle the Abkhaz and South-Ossetian conflicts. Some Russian analysts believe the initiative could potentially weaken Russia's role in the peace process. Yet, there seems to be no way for the Kremlin to stop the initiative at the present time. Indeed, the most serious obstacle blocking the development of the Commonwealth of Democratic Choice may come from Ukraine itself, which has suddenly become embroiled in a political crisis, in which Yushchenko is engaged in a debilitating feud with other Orange Revolution leaders. [For additional information, click here]
Russian policy experts now admit that the so-called color revolutions in particular Georgia's and Ukraine's have altered the geopolitical landscape in the CIS. Accordingly, many acknowledge that Russia's long-time goal of reestablishing geo-strategic predominance in the post-Soviet Eurasia is now unattainable. "The myth of the existence of the post-Soviet space is dead," Dmitri Trenin, the researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Center told the leading Russian business newspaper Vedomosti.
Officials in Moscow now seem determined to establish a new political and economic framework that will offer Russia the greatest possible benefits, given the changed geopolitical environment. "The essence of the policy's new direction is not to restore the influence of Russia, which has been allegedly lost in the process of orange revolutions," a senior Kremlin aide said in an August 23 report distributed by the RIA-Novosti as saying. "The goal is that relations between Moscow and Washington and European countries on the territory of the former Soviet Union acquire a civilized character."
Earlier in August, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin said that Moscow wanted "to transform this [post-Soviet] space into an arena of mutually respectful and predictable partnership." He also said Russia would not oppose "healthy competition" on former Soviet soil as long as the rules of the game were clear.
"Civilized character" and "predictable partnership," in the Moscow's parlance, appear to be synonyms for market prices. The Kremlin official cited in the RIA-Novosti report complained that Russia had lost a large amount of revenue since the 1991 Soviet collapse by providing energy to CIS at subsidized prices.
The Kremlin has specified that Russia will no longer tolerate arrangements in which it does not receive economic or political benefits for selling oil and gas at a discount, especially concerning sales to Western-leaning CIS countries. Thus, while Russian leaders have indicated that they are willing to continue subsidizing the energy needs of states loyal to Moscow's political agenda, those nations viewed as "apostates" stand to be denied all former economic privileges.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.