The Commonwealth of Independent States: Not Subject to Reform

CIS main problem is that its space has become loose, porous and non-homogenous, and that it is losing its fundamental values. The rectification of this space within its new value-related boundaries is perhaps the principal vector of CIS activity.

This year marks 25 years since the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The USSR also disintegrated 25 years ago and post-Soviet states are celebrating the 25th anniversary of independence. The historical chronometer also recorded a quarter of a century since the political defeat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The CIS did not emerge from nowhere and did not materialize out of nothing. The attempt by “nowhere and nothing” initiators and ideologues to reformat the existing system without actually changing its substance but only giving it a facelift ended in the country’s disintegration. The country died but the CIS remained. For that matter, there was no other option but to roll out a “commonwealth” to stake out the ruins of the vast country so as, in some way or another, to preserve the space of administrative inertia.

The CIS was declared an international organization. In other words, the state that had long been one of the two superpowers, a global military, political and economic giant, overnight turned into an international structure without the necessary foundation for the creation and development of a new identity characteristic of this kind of association, and with the still incomprehensible idea of integrating what was cohesive and united only yesterday. Overnight, a superpower turned into a dozen impoverished and weak states, at least half of which did not even understand what had happened.

In terms of raison d’etre, which, incidentally, was vague from the outset because it was built on phantom feelings, pains and euphoria, and remains hopelessly unfathomable today, the CIS has failed to become a real international organization. Nor will it ever become one. Therefore, reform of the commonwealth, discussions and calls for which periodically come up in the post-Soviet space, is practically unfeasible. And not only for this reason.

It seems that in terms of substance, development dialectics and the objectives pursued now and in the past, the commonwealth is, after all, a kind of a historical process accompanying the civilized divorce of the Soviet republics. However, it has to be acknowledged that at a certain point in time this process came to an end.
Still, if we look upon the CIS as an international organization, it is, of course, more reminiscent of an annual heads of state conference.

However, I’d like to note the importance and desirability of the CIS continuing its existence as this kind of conference, and even developing and improving, because from my perspective, annual meetings of CIS nations’ presidents enable them to maintain a dialogue that is generally useful and approved by the CIS public, which, despite criticism and rejection by certain small communities of people in the commonwealth countries, is more positive and necessary than vice versa.

In the 1990s, the existence of the CIS helped almost all post-Soviet states not only build relations with the key member of this international association, i.e., Russia, but also promote relations among themselves as independent international actors although, for example, there are still plenty of problems in Central Asia related to the development of dynamic, positive and mutually beneficial interstate relations. The first bilateral and multilateral treaties, activities and events were organized and conducted within the framework of the CIS.

In this context, I’d like to point out that the evolution of conflict-free relations between post-Soviet countries in the 1990s was due, not to the fact that the CIS was a serious and influential international organization but due to it being a factor of spatial unity that inherited and even conserved for long the most salient elements of past cohabitation, including perhaps, above all, common linguistic culture, common information and value orientations, educational and professional corporate spirit, and the culture of common statehood, among other things.

The next important feature of the CIS, which sets it apart from other international structures, in my opinion, is the fact that it has been and remains a space of transit or transition to other qualitative levels of development for post-Soviet republics, now in the format of independent states.

Transition in the post-Soviet space is a rather distinctive trend. The idea is to make a joint effort to emerge from the post-communist status that is characterized by an odd combination of sovietness, traditionalism, archaism, liberalism and so on.

The key problem, for example, for the Central Asian post-Soviet republics, is a comprehensive and fundamental transition not from authoritarianism to democracy, not from a command economy to a market economy, but from provincialism, from a peripheral status to independence and genuine sovereignty, from an imperial subject to an independent state. The process of seeking an answer in their own history or in other countries’ history has not always reflected contemporary international realities or the process of building nation states. Sometimes false, pseudo-historical patterns or hypertrophied episodes of past life led to political, economic and interstate complications and other problems.

Integration projects in the post-Soviet space emerged almost simultaneously with the breakup of the USSR. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev stood out for his positive activism in this respect. Admittedly, he remains the chief ideologue and driving force behind the integration process in the post-Soviet space.

However, it is also obvious that the situation in the post-Soviet states in this regard has changed in a number of respects, some of which are of fundamental importance.

First, the urge of a number of post-Soviet countries to forge interstate associations without Russia has practically fizzled out. Attempts were made to erect a Central Asian economic community, GUAM, etc. Why these attempts have failed is a subject for a separate, in-depth analysis.

Second, the 2000s witnessed the efforts by some of these states to leave the post-Soviet space, choosing to that end what they thought was the most painless option of joining other international organizations, including integration communities.

Third, [integration] proposals and projects in other major non-post-Soviet countries have entered the stage of practical implementation. There is no doubt that, for example, Central Asian countries are in the focus of various Eurasian geo-economic scenarios. It is also clear that this trend is set to move forward in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the development of Russia’s bilateral relations with CIS countries has become more focused, within the framework of which, for example, Russia’s relations with Belarus almost never overlap with Moscow’s relations with Tashkent in geographical or substantive terms, etc. This is visible not only within an interregional context but also within a particular region, for example, Central Asia.

Fifth, divisions continue to grow in the former USSR republics.

The building of nation states in the post-Soviet space came at a time when humankind had slipped into deep systemic crises related, for example, to socio-economic development concepts, philosophical foundations, worldviews, religions, etc., as well as to the system of international relations, including the formats and activities of international organizations. The lack of balance and the instability of international order erodes the objectives, purposes and interests of the integration associations that post-Soviet states have been trying to create. Even the terminology of their integration efforts is subject to corrosion and contradictions.

As mentioned earlier, a characteristic feature of the present status of CIS countries is post-communism, and the fundamental goal of all integration and non-integration projects in the post-Soviet space without exception should evidently be a search for a way out of the post-communist state that all former Soviet republics have ended up in. Strangely enough, however, this post-Soviet status is in fact being conserved in a number of former Soviet republics.

As a result, different CIS countries have different constructs. For some of them, post-Soviet integration is movement forward, while for others, it is movement backwards.

The key problem is that our countries ignore the need to formulate and form a system of post-communist development values and guidelines, without which voluntary and mutually beneficial integration is a process with many unknown, primarily negative quantities.

It is also obvious that integration concepts are drastically changing both in international and bilateral formats. At present, the “for” and “against” formulas in building integration associations are perceived and interpreted differently. Many integration models, which only a decade ago appeared solid and durable, are now on the verge of crisis. The “product” needs thorough and meticulous reformatting – that is, of course, if there is still a common interest to uphold and develop it.

It should also be borne in mind that identity models in post-Soviet countries, for example, in Central Asia, have begun gradually to move in opposite directions. All of them are searching for and constructing identities that they consider to be historically, culturally, politically and even geographically justified and optimal.

The appeal of integration projects is a separate issue.

To reiterate, the situation in the post-Soviet space is unique in that we are trying to promote integration on the ruins of what used to be a single state.

With regard to the post-Soviet space, it is noteworthy that the so-called sovietness has proved to be an impediment to the integration of former Soviet republics. This experience is unique. When the USSR was around, sovietness, representing a set of truly unique values and guidelines, played a positive role in the development of Soviet republics, especially in respect to the Central Asian countries. However, following the breakup of the USSR and the emergence of independent republics in the post-Soviet space, sovietness became a negative factor. This phenomenon has yet to receive an objective and comprehensive evaluation from the CIS expert community.

I believe that the view of the present status of the CIS as an international association at a crossroads is incorrect. The commonwealth’s main problem is that its space has become loose, porous and non-homogenous, and that it is losing its fundamental values. The rectification of this space within its new value-related boundaries, without ignoring the common past, including the negative pages of history, and introducing positive development elements into the new space of cooperation – this is perhaps the principal vector of CIS activity. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.