The CIS may not exist as an entity on the globe, but during the coming decade, we will see a continued buildup of the various separate regions in the former Soviet space, i.e. Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine); the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia plus disconnected Abkhazia and South Ossetia); and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Despite major differences country-to-country, states within each group share many common economic, political and cultural characteristics, which can be expected to fade with the passing of those generations that remember the common state.
To this end, the Russian Federation holds a unique position in the Euro-Pacific area. Separate, distinct, but still bordering these regions and related to all of them to differing degrees, in the 2010s Russia will step up ITS efforts to become an independent center of gravity in Northern Eurasia. Leaning on its CIS allies and partners, Moscow is willing to fortify its stance vis-à-vis its geopolitical competitors – the European Union in the west, and China in the east.
Hence, for the foreseeable future, the CIS should remain Russian Federation’s significant foreign policy priority. Relations between Russia and the independent states that emerged on the breakup of the Soviet Union will change. But due to geographical proximity, occasional ethnic and cultural commonality, and close historical links, especially in the periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, this relationship is likely to retain its particular character.
Nevertheless, during the third decade since the split, the exclusiveness in relations between Russia and the former border republics will continue to diminish. As a result, most CIS states, perceived by many in Russia as separate but not really foreign, will gradually shift to the overseas category, as has already happened with the Baltic states. Naturally, most Russians should continue to regard certain CIS countries, primarily Belarus and Ukraine (especially its east and south) as more kindred than, for example, Poland or Slovakia. On the other hand, public consciousness will increasingly associate Transcaucasia and the Central Asian states with their neighbors outside the former USSR.
Despite the obvious significance of relations with neighboring states, the CIS countries are not likely to form the centerpiece of Russian foreign policy. While becoming part of today’s globalized world, Russia has turned its back on empire building. With no Empire 2.0 in the offing, the construction of this Russian center of power is not merely a geopolitical task, like the creation of a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” the development of Russia’s eastern areas, or occupying a distinguished position in the Asia-Pacific region. Instead, it primarily involves the modernization and economic strengthening of the nation itself. Integration with certain CIS countries can and should support these aspirations, albeit only to a certain extent, and provided they are based in realistic and moderately ambitious policies.
Any gathering of territories around Moscow is definitely out of question. Even Russia’s closest partners are not ready to give up their sovereignty, many still prizing this new-found independence from Moscow.
Eventual political unification on a voluntary and equal footing should require equal resolve from many participants, broad public support and tremendous resources that Russia should be ready to allocate to implement the project. The partial transfer of sovereignty to a supranational body and the distribution of shares in the common government appear the most complicated aspects of this transformation, although this is unlikely to be achieved before 2020.
As a result, Russian policies toward individual CIS countries will be shaped not by nostalgia or grand geopolitical strategy, but by Russian leaders’ practical interests and needs, and also by the changing environment. Inter-CIS integration became a priority due to the 2008-2009 global crisis and simultaneous major geopolitical shifts in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region, which prompted Moscow to prioritize a more insular approach. In 2009 Putin accelerated the creation of the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and in 2011 suggested establishing the Eurasian Union. The Common Economic Space bringing the three countries together has formally in operation since 2012.
Even with Moscow’s renewed impetus, this integration process is only likely to succeed if Russia and its partners concentrate on realistic policies, analyzed here in the medium-term perspective for the political, economic, military and humanitarian areas.
The political reintegration of the CIS appears utopian, since the “back to the USSR” process, i.e. return to a united state, will not become a reality in any form. There is no going back. There is no chance that, in the foreseeable future, the Eurasian Union will resemble a federation or a super-state. Neither Kazakhstan nor Belarus, and particularly not their political and economic elites, will cede formal independence to a successor of the USSR. On the other hand, the Eurasian Union as a confederation in which the different participants have unequal roles but equal rights is unlikely to suit Russia, which is by far the biggest partner demographically, politically and militarily. The union state of Russia and Belarus, the two closest countries, was unveiled on the threshold of the 21st century, but remains essentially nonexistent: vividly demonstrating the magnitude of the problems faced.
Nevertheless, further political rapprochement between Russia and other CIS countries, principally Kazakhstan and Belarus, is still required, and indeed is underway. With economic integration already on track, Astana, Minsk and Moscow are progressively developing common interests, necessitating closer policy coordination. Symbolic steps like coordinating positions prior to UN General Assembly sessions matter less than cooperation on purely practical matters such as assisting Kazakhstan and Belarus in acceding to the WTO or accommodating a future Russia-EU agreement with the existing Customs Union and Common Economic Space.
Economic integration within the CIS is also underway. Kazakhstan and Belarus are entering the Russian market, which is 10 to15 times larger than either’s national market. Russia also receives significant benefits through access to assets in partner countries’ territory. In the 2010s, economic integration may be limited to the Common Market of Goods, Capitals, Services and Labor of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The path from the Customs Union to the Common Economic Space and from there to the Common Market seems not just logical but also practicable. As far as the Eurasian Economic Union is concerned, it is important to recall that genuine economic merger is impossible without political alliance.
Since political association seems unlikely in the near future, an economic union similar to the Russian-Belarusian union state or the Eurasian Economic Community may be left in the realm of political rhetoric – without any grounding in political reality.
Establishing a common currency creates similar difficulties, as can be seen from Russian-Belarusian monetary relations. A single currency with a single emission center in Moscow would deprive the partners of financial and, consequently, economic and political independence, whereas establishing several emission centers would undermine the economies of all integrated partners. However, there is another approach, i.e. the ruble’s gradual conversion into a regional reserve currency. Under certain conditions, defined by the economic and financial successes of the Russian Federation and the creation of an appropriate legislative and normative base; Belarus and Kazakhstan plus some other CIS states could settle payments in rubles and hold an amount of rubles as a reserve. A Eurasian Currency Mechanism to coordinate the Russian and Belarusian rubles and the Kazakhstan’s tenge would also seem possible.
In the 2010s, genuine economic integration should only cover Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with Ukraine’s involvement more than likely to be accompanied by serious difficulties. Moscow will continue to involve Kiev in the Customs Union and subsequently will seek to involve it in the Common Economic Space and Eurasian Economic Union. However, Ukraine’s elites and majority of the population seem to understand that excessively close economic integration with Russia risks ruining the Ukrainian national project. Just imagine a Ukrainian government in dire straits with no help from the EU and no hope of joining Europe that is forced to steer its policies toward Moscow. Most likely, this would fuel domestic tensions within Ukraine, creating severe political volatility and even the eventual involvement of Russia, EU, the United States and NATO.
Ways out of this kind of crisis are not obvious, whereas the potential losses participants face appear enormous. However, this scenario seems unlikely to come to pass, particularly since Kiev, contained by Brussels, Berlin and Washington, is less than likely to make this turn toward Moscow.
Moldova’s inclusion in the integration process would only be viable in the unlikely event of Ukraine's participation. Chisinau would retain its broadly pro-European vector, while the status of Transdniester, its enclave location and small geographical size all prevent the territory from achieving its aspirations to partnership with Russia. With this frozen conflict unresolved, Tiraspol would remain a recipient of Russian aid. But if a settlement were to be found, Russia would be able to strengthen its economic stance across Moldova, even if the country remains oriented on the European Union.
The situation with the two other breakaway regions, Abkhazia and Ossetia, which proclaimed independence and, in contrast to Transnistria, were recognized by Moscow, appears to be different. These entities are long-standing de facto members of Russian economic space, although their status will remain impaired until a full-scale peace settlement is concluded with Georgia. For the time being, Sukhumi and Tskhinval have only used Moscow's assistance to gain independence from Tbilisi.
As for Georgia, which left the CIS in 2009, it will never return to life in Moscow's orbit, and there is broad consensus within Georgian society on this point. Supported by its hydrocarbon-filled treasury, Azerbaijan will remain on the margins of any CIS integration plans, as will resource-poor Armenia which lacks a common border with Russia.
In theory, this space may expand across Central Asia, encompassing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which would be swiftly admitted to the Customs Union, provided that Moscow, Bishkek and Dushanbe take the relevant political decisions.
At the same time, for full-fledged participation in the integration process, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would need a considerable amount of time and hard work, with no guarantee of final success. Hence, during the transition period, it seems reasonable to give Bishkek and Dushanbe associated membership of the Eurasian Economic Space. Arguably, this could take place through membership of the Eurasian Economic Community, as that structure could be converted into a preparatory group. Other approaches to their admission risk damaging both the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Space.
In the 2010s, Uzbekistan might undergo a change in leadership, as Islam Karimov has been ruling the country since its independence. This could open up the possibility for various different scenarios, but his successors are likely to carry on building up the country as an independent regional power. Should this happen, Uzbekistan, much like isolationist Turkmenistan, will remain outside this emergent, integrated space. Tashkent and Ashgabat are also expected to demand Moscow's attention as major economic partners, while Russia is likely to cooperate with them on a bilateral basis, as it does with Baku and Kiev.
Integration on security issues is most likely to proceed within the current CSTO format. After Uzbekistan's withdrawal in 2012, the common security space seems to have taken shape, and is set to incorporate Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus as the core; Armenia as the outpost in Transcaucasia; and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as the Central Asian border states. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have Russian troops and border guards deployed in their territories, de facto fall within Russia's security system.
The CSTO’s future is not dependent on the unlikely admission of new members, losing old ones or NATO recognition (despite Moscow’s tireless efforts to obtain the latter). The organization's main goal is to grow into an effective regional security alliance for the 21st century, which only appears achievable if the CSTO becomes Moscow's genuine priority. Moscow must learn to build equitable relationships with those places that it has until recently viewed as peripheral in this sensitive field, whereas the allies should display greater readiness to cooperate closely with Moscow and each other.
In the 2010s, the most likely CSTO mission seems to lie in Central Asian security, particularly given the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, mounting tensions around Iran, the Shiite-Sunni confrontation, and long-term instability in the Arab world and North Africa as a result of the “Arab spring” and the Islamist regimes that emerged from it in many countries.
Other major threats to the national security of Russia and other CSTO states come from the drugs flow from Afghanistan, religious extremism, and internal and interstate conflicts in Central Asia.
To fulfill this task, the CSTO must develop much closer cooperation not just when it comes to the theater-wide military dimension, but on the strategic, political level. Accordingly, the key mechanism should incorporate the continuous interaction of the member-countries' national security councils and staffs.
For this interaction to be effective, Moscow should learn to treat its allies as equal partners, and they must stop shirking their commitments. Since Central Asia appears an obvious priority, Russia should concentrate on privileged security relations with Kazakhstan, clearly its most capable ally in the region.
Apart from transforming the CSTO into a workable security system, chiefly in the Central Asia, in the 2010s Moscow should also settle the conflicts that emerged in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ability to resolve the situation surrounding Transnistria seems to be a real indicator of Russia's ability to act as a great power, i.e. to demonstrate the ability to build and not destroy. The normalization of relations with Georgia and, accordingly, the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts are key to Russia's security in the Caucasus. Finally, achieving a lasting peace in Transcaucasia will to a great extent depend on the efficiency of multilateral efforts, involving Russian participation, regarding the Nagorny Karabakh conundrum.
Cultural issues suggest a very real need for Russian soft power. The CIS and broader FSU space offer the most appropriate platform for the realization of Russia's comparative advantages in this field. The Russian language and culture, including the pop culture, are some of Russia's traditional soft power tools. Despite major losses in their audience reach, in the 2010s the Russian language and culture should go on to retain their significance, although the key lies in Moscow's ability to lead the post-Soviet states in economic development, education, science and technology.
To this end, quality higher education appears to have a special role. If Russian universities were to soar in global ratings, that would mean that a greater number of more gifted CIS students would seek their education in Russia. Consequently, Russia would become more attractive for these new states' elites and societies. If these educated young people then go on to obtain jobs in Russia, the country would benefit from enhanced technological and cultural potential.
The effectiveness of Russian soft power in the CIS could be also improved through Russian media and Russian Internet becoming acknowledged as the most reliable source of information and vehicle for the dissemination of new ideas across the entire expanse of the FSU, especially in countries with tougher political regimes.
Religion is, however, an absolutely exceptional matter. The Russian Orthodox Church has displayed the clear tendency to spread its canonical domain over Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. In doing so, it faces a difficult dilemma – either to keep growing and moving towards a national Russian church or to reexamine its role in this attempt to turn supranational in the 21st century. The 2010s should show which direction the Moscow Patriarchate is willing to take. Developments within the Islamic community are no less significant, since stability in Russia and certain adjacent countries will to a great extent depend on whether Russia's Muslim clergy develops a model of moderate Islam that fellow believers both within Russia and beyond find attractive.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Russia's new challenges in the 21st century require qualitatively new approaches from its political class, economic circles and civil society. It is high time to launch an economic development model that would engender a modern economy. Russia must finalize the assignment of property rights and ensure genuinely equal justice for all; ensure its government is accountable to the electorate and create real political competition; and unite its political and economic forces on the basis of national interests and shared values. In this regard, the 2010s should become a period that defines Russia's destiny for decades to come, as well as its status in the world and in the FSU.