When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, due to many pressures both internal and external, the ex-soviet satellites were given their independence, much to Russia’s dismay. A new trend towards sovereignty made it difficult for the largest country in the world to deny it’s former members the right to separate. However, even with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russia is still heavily involved with the matters of its former soviet members. This then leaves the question, are those former states truly sovereign?
In the following pages we will examine the many reasons as to why this question is currently being posed. Firstly, we will look at Russia’s history on the international scene and how they have not really changed their agenda throughout the last century, up into the present. Along with the brief history, we shall elaborate on the reasons why the CIS was founded. Furthermore, modern day Russia seems to feel the need to impose itself upon these new sovereign states for various reasons that we will elaborate upon. Lastly, the members of the CIS see Russia as both a friend and foe to the organisation, which will be shown by looking at their interests and why they have divided views. However, to fully understand the complexities that are the Russian Empire, let us take a step back in time to when Peter the Great was building a country of grandeur.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great continued the expansion set forth by his predecessors, and fought a long war against the seasoned Swedish army. With the final defeat of their army, Peter gained control of several small countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Ingria and Estonia. Upon his return from the war the Russian senate voted that he bear the title of the Great and Emperor, his acceptance of the last title marked the official inauguration of the Russian Empire.
Peter the Great continued to fight wars in hopes of expanding Russia’s borders and its economy, regardless of cost, which eventually led to mistrust within the empire. Russia was indeed a world power, influencing and controlling its neighbours. Having built such a vast empire was only part of Peter’s public appeal, he was a very ruthless but enlightened leader, the kind that appealed to the Russian people. In one of the bloodier cases, he had 1000 members of a coup d’état assassinated, a punishment that he himself helped administer. Upon his death, many school children were then raised to see Peter as a hero, and a model leader. Perhaps then it is not so surprising that in the decades to follow, his accepted ruthlessness would be passed down into the next generations of leaders, this time having stricter doctrines within the regimes.
As Karl Marx’s ideas of socialism spread across a desperate nation several men stepped forward to end the oppression and starvation of their beloved country. The Russian revolution in 1917 seemed to be a refreshing change compared to the imperialism of the old regime and so countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Belarus joined willingly, hoping to find guidance for their country. Regardless of the many positive changes in the late 1920’s, Joseph Stalin gained sole control of the Soviet Union and was more or less as ruthless as Peter the great himself. He began expanding and militarising the union, putting the state above each and every man. In the Ukraine, profitable farms were condensed into collective farms hoping to support industrialisation, and as a result there was a great famine and an estimated 5 to 7 million Ukrainians died. Even in Ukraine’s darker period, because of their many natural resources, they were still considered very important to the Soviet Empire, almost its backbone.
The Ukraine was not the only country to be used by the Soviets. Since the USSR spanned eight time zones, the land occupied was enormous; in fact it was the largest in the world. With such diverse landscapes there came many different natural resources which were used to feed and house the population of the Soviet Union as well as push the economy forward with its exports. The trees blanketing one-third of the Soviet Union constituted more than one-quarter of the earth’s forest cover, subsequently making it one of the main exports, coming second only to the mining industry. The mineral deposits and precious metals in the Ukrainian and Siberian areas brought in the most revenue for the Soviets. Now it is quite evident that one of the reasons that the USSR prospered was that upon its vast amount of land were several different resources which they had every right to exploit, allowing access to the whole of the union, rather than one single area within.
As the Soviet Union weakened, its last secretary general, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided that it was time to end the socialist era in 1991.Many countries, who had relied upon the omnipresent Soviet government for so long, were lost. New governments were appointed in each new state, and so, the roller coaster began. At first it seemed as if a great weight had been lifted from the minds of the people in Eastern Europe, but it was soon apparent that a new accord would have to be signed to protect the minorities within the neighbouring states and distribute the Soviet armed forces, among other things.
The newly elected Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk and the Supreme Soviet Chairman, Stanislav Shushkevich, met in the secluded Minsk forest in December of 1991 to discuss the terms for the new accord. However, as time would later prove, there was a wide gulf in the understanding between the “fathers” of the commonwealth. “Boris Yeltsin would manoeuvre for Russian supremacy over the organisation. Leonid Kravchuk would insist on an amicable separation between equal and sovereign independent states. Stanislav Shushkevich would argue for Belarusian neutrality and a multinational, “rule-of-international-law” organisation that would enable Belarus to sow the first seeds of a separate national identity.” Since these countries had been linked so closely together for such a long time, they shared many common bonds, some of which Russia was not ready to let go.
When the accord was created and the parties had all agreed to the terms, things appeared to be fine. However, it took little time to realise that Russia was unsatisfied with the direction in which things were heading and proceeded to place itself at the head of the arena. Moscow was sick and tired of complying with the opinions of its partners and decided to exercise the right of Big Brother to the CIS. They continued on to forbid CIS members to pursue independent external policies. Yeltsin called it “committing to their first priority, the CIS, and to refrain from participation in unions or blocs against any or all of the states.” There is an actual clause stating that if any member of the CIS forms an alliance outside the given states then they will be forced to withdraw from the commonwealth, however, it is no surprise that clause does not apply, nor will ever apply, to Russia. As stated in president Kravchuk’s electoral slogan, “Russia does not intend to develop its relations with CIS countries on the basis of international law. (…) the further integration with the Commonwealth is leading to the watering down of CIS countries sovereignty, subordination of the interests to those of Russia, and the recreation of a centralised superpower.”
We have seen that Russia has always had interests in her neighbouring countries, sometimes turning violent, sometimes not, but always causing tension. The many borders surrounding the largest country in the world preoccupy its government for safety reasons. During the Soviet reign, and most importantly during the cold war, the Soviet states surrounding Russia were a security barrier, a guarantee the west wouldn’t creep up to the Kremlin unnoticed. However, there have been offers by NATO to several of the countries of the CIS for membership, consequently enraging Russia, who does not want the western organisation sitting on its doorstep. NATO argues that it is not expanding to spite Russia and has even offered them a seat, which, was evidently refused. Even though there is tension with the occident, North America is not what preoccupies Yeltsin the most. With the bombings in Kosovo this past year, we can see that Moscow’s concerns fall mostly in Europe.
Because of the Kosovo bombings there have been threats by Moscow to form negative alliances with Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Iran and China if there were to be a NATO enlargement« L’expansion de l’OTAN qui montre sa détermination à dominer la planète pour les prochaines cinquante et une années obligera la Russie à recréer son propre potentiel militaire », écrit Vladimir Kouznetchevski, qui ajoute : « On ne peut arrêter cette expansion que par la force.» However, an alliance of that kind would alienate them from the west, as well as financial aid. Albeit Russia’s current preoccupation with the eastern European NATO expansion and the bombings in Kosovo, it has never had the intention to join the neither European Union nor NATO. Moscow has been offered, at several occasions, a place at the EU to calm tense nerves, but like with NATO, it refused. To join itself to either would mean subjecting Russia to the discipline and will of its former rivals, so they have chosen to counter it. They have participated in several European security meetings and are no stranger to dealings with the EU, but are too proud to accept membership. To compensate for this over sized ego on the global market, they depend on the members of the CIS, who are also “encouraged” to avoid contact with NATO as well. At times Moscow has been known use pressure tactics on the countries to get its way.
It would seem that Russian influence is as important to Moscow as the nation’s security. In the Caucasus, Moscow is supporting both Karabakh and Abkhazia, two nations who have had longstanding disputes. This move allows Russia to play both sides and still remain influential. Their fear is this; if quarrelling countries are able to resolve their conflicts, then Russia will have no say and will see its power and influence over the region diminish. Overall, Russia’s crisis management has been known to be self-serving, resembling more the tactics of dividing and ruling than integration. Georgia and Armenia are currently addressing the possibility of peace settlements, but they are both hoping that Russia’s direct role in their business is finished, as unlikely as it seems.
One of the reasons for which Moscow is so busy with external affairs is that its own country is in shambles. “La corruption financière sans limites, la dégradation nationale et le cataclysme économique dans lesquels se débat la Russie depuis l’arrivée au pouvoir de M. Boris Eltsine en 1991 n’ont pas de précédent dans l’histoire du capitalisme au XXe siècle. En huit ans, les apparatchiks du président, la nouvelle oligarchie et leurs mentors américains ont ruiné le pays.” Experts have compared modern Russia to Chicago in the 1920’s because of the extreme crime rate. It is well known that Russian Mafia play a large part in the running of the country, with influence in the surrounding areas as well, and as such the people have lost faith in their government. There is not only a problem with crime however, the economy is much worse. Boris Yeltsin is trying to strengthen his appeal to voters by giving them what they want, a strong Russia.
Throughout Russia’s history, there has always been a legacy of strength and power. When the USSR failed and the government became democratic, the people believed that it would bring them prosperity. However, it brought them corruption, in the greatest sense of the word. As mentioned above, inner turmoil and bankruptcy are tearing Russia apart. Unpaid salaries are among the dozens of hardships the Russian population is facing, but seeing as they are a democratic nation, the impoverished masses are voters, and will decide Yeltsin’s fate. He is trying to win over his people by getting Russia involved in international situations. Take for instance the conflict in Kosovo; there have always been tensions between Moscow and Yugoslavia, but Yeltsin rallied his people against the American bombings. Regardless of the tension, the masses are focusing their anger towards anti-American propaganda because it is all they have. “La crise des Balkans agit sur l’évolution du paysage politique russe de manière multiforme. Si, jusqu’ici, le thème du « complot américain contre la Russie » ne rencontrait qu’un écho assez modéré, la crise du Kosovo survient dans un contexte en pleine évolution.” Moscow needs to fuel the fire to keep people’s faith. “Pour beaucoup de Russes, la guerre menée par l’OTAN confirme la volonté des Américains de mettre leur pays à genoux. D’autant qu’ils sont sensibles à leur isolement croissant.”
The recent conflict in Chechnya is yet another instance where Russia refuses to let go. They have asked for their independence on countless occasions since the reign of Peter the Great and have always been refused. Just recently, there has been some activity around the Russian-Chechnyan border causing panic throughout the state. Unfortunately though, Moscow has played the situation to it’s fullest, bombing their own civilian buildings and placing the blame on Chechnyan terrorists, subsequently winning over the Russian people. Just like in the Russian Tsarist and Stalinist periods, Yeltsin is using force to appeal to the Russian public. Instead of giving the small nation their independence, the Yeltsin government has pushed them over once again, only this time bombing civilians and creating thousands of casualties. Moscow is disregarding the suggestion for peace by CIS members and justifies the bombings for its own gain. It would seem that the CIS only matters when it will profit Russia.
The members of the CIS also have issues with Russia. It is known that Moscow uses the Commonwealth for its own purpose but its members are not wholly ignorant. Some countries need Russia, or have been led to believe they do, and some know they do not need Russia but can’t seem to shake them off. During the Soviet period many Russians emigrated all over its territory, settling families and lives. Today that is causing many problems with countries that would choose to oppose Russia, the Ukraine for instance.
There are nearly 15 millions Russians within Ukraine’s borders, and as such they are a heavy minority. They represent enough of a pull for the government not to disregard them in matters of the state. Russia has much say in Ukrainian dealings because of that specific minority, albeit president Kravchuk’s disapproval. It is known amongst the ex-Soviet states that the Russians overlook other nationalities with an undue degree of ethnic superiority, creating tensions. Ukraine has a problem with this but can say nothing because of the repercussions it would cause between them and Russia, especially since there is enough tension there already. The Ukraine also relies heavily on Russian fuel and has strong cultural links so it wouldn’t be able to find allies elsewhere without being cutoff of a vital supply. In 1995, Russia threatened to call the Ukraine a bankrupt country and demand their debt be paid off in Ukraine assets. Moscow is using its imports, exports and past debts to manipulate other countries.
Another country stuck in Russia’s economic grasp is Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government believes that to be truly independent economically, they must depend on Russian support. The president stated, “If we break these relations, there is a risk that the Kyrgyz will return to their traditional nomadic life as cattle breeders.” They rely on fuel material, lubricants and equipment provided by Russia, which, if they were to be taken away, would greatly affect Kyrgyz agriculture. Also, reforms in the mid-Asian state also depend on Russia, or so believe the president of Kyrgyz, “it will be impossible to achieve reforms in Kyrgyzstan without close cooperation with Russia.” There is a fear throughout many mid-Asian countries that if they turn their interests to the south or west for economic purposes, they will lose all support from Russia. This does not leave them much choice in the matters of their states. They have been dependant on their northern ally for such a long time that it would appear they know no better than to agree with whatever decision comes their way.
We can see that through manipulation and the image of power, Russia tends to get its way, all the while impeding on the sovereignty of its neighboring states. Russia today is not that different from the Russia back in the 19th century, doing what it can to form a superpower, at which they are the head country. Even as Russia is in its darkest economic period they have not let go of their pride, rallying the people to support the Kremlin’s decisions, as well as manipulation the other countries into believing Russia is the beginning and the end of eastern European politics.
Many scholars believe that the CIS is in fact Russia is piecing together its former federation, a fallen power desperate to hold on to everything it has, or can have for that matter. Russia does not have to be strong to possess power, Kissinger once wrote that the perception of power is as manipulative as power itself, something the Kremlin knows well. Current academic works have already begun replacing the term Commonwealth of Independent States with a much simpler term, Russia. It will be interesting to see in the coming years where such a country will be. With the failing economy and internal politics turned inside out by crime, one would think not to far, but Russia still has enough kick to get by and maybe what the critics say is true, with the help from the west, Russia will rebuild its empire to one day stand again.
1-Bremmer, Ian, Russia’s Total Security, World Policy Journal Volume XVI No.2 Summer 1999
2-Brzezkinski, Zbigniew- Sullivan, Paige, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States- Documents, Data and Analysis, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, New York, 1997, 855 pages
3-LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE – Ukraine, une société bloquée MAI 1998 – Page 8 http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/1998/05/PFLIMLIN/10467.html
4-LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE – Tempête politique en Russie JUIN 1999 – Page 10 http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/1999/06/RADVANYI/12117.html
5-Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000, Interactive software, 1999
6-The National Russia and Election 2000 September 6/13, 1999