The Changing Face of the CIS

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Elkhan Nuriyev

Specialist on regional security issues in Eurasia, Humboldt Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (2015), DAAD Senior Policy Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (2014).

On September 2016 the CIS Heads of State met in Bishkek for holding the jubilee summit, dedicated to 25th anniversary of the organization. Although the one-day summit went almost unnoticed by the expert community, the event was noteworthy for its success to achieve a consensus on what Russia considered the vital question of preserving the CIS as a full-fledged international organization. Whatever the critics say about current post-Soviet integration processes, the CIS remains a universal platform enabling the leaders of member states to discuss the pivotal issues of the post-independence transitions and to exchange views on the most urgent problems of international politics. The fact that the summit ended with the signing of several fundamental documents, including statements on a wide variety of regional security issues testifies to the member states’ unanimous desire to intensify multilateral cooperation between them.

More to the point, the Bishkek summit vividly illustrated that the heads of state have given high relevance to the CIS activities related to security, economic, political and military aspects. The CIS has indeed managed to develop a strong legal framework in many areas, including the customs, transport, communication, let alone the promotion of closer integration in economy and security. The main advantage of the CIS, however, is the ability of this flexible organization to adapt itself to the new world realities. As the CIS is part of the international security system, the priorities for multilateral cooperation are selected according to the emerging challenges in contemporary international relations.

Yet the main disadvantage restricting the role of the CIS is related to the lack of rapid response and timely action to resolve regional security issues in the post-Soviet territory. Given that the leaders are concerned about a resurgence of terrorism and extremism, the CIS retains an important role in addressing problems raised in the international arena. Within the CIS still lies untapped cooperation potential that needs to be discovered, embraced and nurtured. All the benefits and opportunities the member states have not so far used might give a fresh impetus to the joint efforts to combat terrorism and meet security challenges lurking on the horizon.

Even a brief analysis of how Russia is responding to the changing strategic environment in its immediate region shows that Moscow feels concerned with the situation. As the Kremlin examines the real power situation in the international arena, the significance of the CIS becomes abundantly clear to the Russian Federation. President Vladimir Putin knows well that the security of Russia is inextricably linked to political and economic developments in the CIS countries. For that reason, the Kremlin’s concept of geopolitical standing suggests Russia’s special strategic relationships with the CIS member states, whether they share geopolitical interests and problems. Without doubt, Russia cannot simply shirk engagement in the CIS territory where Moscow wants to strengthen security arrangements with the post-Soviet states.

Indeed, economics and politics in the CIS countries are in many ways determined by their relationship to Russia and vice versa. This means that the Russian factor remains considerable in the foreign policy strategies of the CIS nations. As a consequence, they see constant cooperation with Russia as the best solution both bilaterally and multilaterally. This is why the CIS signifies for the member states themselves as well. While highlighting the increased urgency of cooperation in combating international terrorism, the CIS heads of state have realized that there is strong need to protect their countries’ frontiers and turn them into an impenetrable barrier against would be adversaries of the post-Soviet states.

Clearly, President Putin’s statements made at the jubilee summit in Bishkek underline his intention to improve the performance of the organization after Russia takes over the CIS presidency starting in 2017. Russia appears to be going to tackle the challenge of reformatting the existing framework of integration within the CIS. True, due to rapidly changing geopolitical realities the CIS in its current form cannot be retained but should be upgraded for the purpose of increasing its effectiveness, efficiency and relevance. Reforming the CIS really matters to Russia and other member states in terms of forging a much closer multilateral cooperation. One cannot therefore rule out the possibility that Russia’s CIS presidency in 2017 will significantly influence the subsequent development of the post-Soviet territory.

To put it more bluntly, the results of the high-level meeting in Bishkek lay the ground for a hope that the next CIS summit scheduled for October 2017 in Moscow will make a resolute step to strengthen regional integration trends. If this be indeed so, weaknesses of the CIS can be turned into strong advantages of the organization. Strengthening security ties with the CIS countries is a prerequisite for Russia’s continued success in the twenty-first century.  In order to enhance the CIS’ international standing and improve its image on the world stage, Moscow can make decisions that will advance the Russian agenda of geopolitical influence and wider economic cooperation. It will be therefore no surprise if the Kremlin initiates gradual process of redrawing the CIS with a new outlook that would not only gratify Russia’s interests, but also those of the member states. But for that to happen, serious steps need to be taken by Russia and other post-Soviet states to solve many knotty issues that bind the CIS countries together. This is why the year 2017 will prove decisive in the struggle to reshape the CIS and make regional integration much closer.

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