Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who cares about the CIS?

It looks like Ukraine is poised to quit the Commonwealth of Independent States. Does that matter at all? The CIS was formed when the former republics of the Soviet Union all first became independent. It was originally intended to be some successor union to the USSR to keep its former republics somewhat unified.

And that pretty much failed from the get-go. The three Baltic states never joined. Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war with each other. The party bosses who suddenly found themselves heads of state in Central Asia quickly found that it's good to be the king and were not inclined to give up their independence so soon. Turkmenistan is currently just a "participating state" rather than a full member because, while it signed the CIS Charter in 1991, it never got around to ratifying it. Georgia quit in 2008.

For all its talk of being a union of "independent" states, it was always clearly a Russian-dominated group. The head of the organization has been Russian since 1998, other than a one month period in 1999 when a Belarusian held the post (Belarus being the most pro-Moscow country in the CIS). The member states themselves act like the CIS is an extension of Russia. When Georgia had a conflict with Russia, it quit the group, and Ukraine is considering quitting now that it has a conflict with Russia. Both clearly consider quitting the CIS to be a snub to Russia. Russia floated the idea that it might leave because either of these conflicts. Armenia and Azerbaijan both stuck with the group throughout their conflicts with each other, even though it meant they were both in a nominal "commonwealth" with their wartime enemy. Those two countries clearly did not see the CIS primarily as a union between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they saw their membership as a way to maintain their ties with Russia, who was not a party to their conflict.

Meanwhile, even Russia seems to have moved on from the CIS. Its new project is the Eurasian Union. If the CIS were really so successful, there would be no reason to start a new Eurasian Union organization, and then to try to coax CIS members to join that new organization. (Russia's somewhat strong arm coaxing of Ukraine's prior government is part of what started this whole crisis).

These days, the only point of the CIS seems to be an organization that a former soviet republic can quit to make an anti-Russian statement. Other than giving countries that fall out with Moscow something to resign from, I don't think the organization matters at all. It's just a remnant of a previous time that Russia tried to maintain its dominance over its former subject republics.