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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Just a Paper Union

By now, it seems everyone has grown accustomed to the fact that the Commonwealth of Independent States exists only on paper. The regular appearance of new agreements on integration has in no way interferred with the process of disintegration.

This mass of paper, however, was stirred up by the Communist move on March 15 to pass the State Duma resolution condemning the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But this was only a first step. On March 29, the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed a treaty that had been prepared well in advance of the Communist initiative on deepened economic integration, which Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev nicknamed the union of "4 + X," meaning that the union of the four countries may be joined at any time by other states. Last Tuesday, Russia and Belarus formed a new commonwealth. By analogy this political unit could go by the formula "2 + X." Thus, the new structure of integration has taken on the curious form of a Russian matryoshka doll.

There are obvious ties between these events and the Russian presidential elections, despite the fact that all the leaders, with the exception of the remarkably ingenuous Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, denied any such links. The outcome of the June presidential election has turned out to be vitally important for Russia's neighbors, and the pre-election campaign could not overlook the issue of reintegration. Indeed, stability on the post-Soviet space is indivisible and bound to depend on Russia.

The Communists and President Boris Yeltsin proposed two contradictory and alternative decisions. They both are trying, however, to resolve the same problem: restoring unity to the post-Soviet space. The reconstitution of the Soviet Union will hardly be a priority even in the event that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov wins in June. The promise of the four presidents to deepen integration could also remain just a declaration of intention. The agreement itself, which caused such a sensation, is in fact written in the style of a Soviet Communist Party Central Committee resolution -- a fact worth noting. It is nothing more than that and will most likely not hold up. But the Communists' intentions alone were considered such a real threat that it was necessary to counter them with effective gestures.

Reintegration would not be such a fiercely debated subject in the pre-election struggle if the problems for Russia and its neighbors raised by the issue were not so serious. Many Russians in the CIS countries are experiencing nostalgia for the Soviet Union along with a certain longing for the pre-reform way of life. This is a symptom of the fact that the Commonwealth of Independent States has been unable to meet the psychological and social needs of a good part of the population. Anti-communist rhetoric has also been less able to soften the resentment that is felt over the Dickensian social contrasts that have arisen. The mood of a large part of the population is one reason for the movement toward integration. Integration is also urged on by purely economic motives.

In the four years of the existence of the CIS, economic interdependence has taken shape in a chaotic manner. Russia is bringing its energy prices up to world standards and asking that it be paid in hard currency. The result has been that the economies of Russia's neighbors have been destroyed, and their external debts have increased. They are thus trying to defer payments and avoid bankruptcy. Some countries are attempting to obtain concessions from Russia in exchange for closer relations, while others are moving further away in the hope of finding other donors or positioning themselves to make better deals with Russia. Russia has been supplying less energy to its neighbors, but the debts of CIS countries to Russia continue to rise. They amount to some $9 billion today. Industrial production has come to a halt, the standard of living is coming closer to subsistence levels, and social and political tensions are mounting.

In the end, such economic interdependence of the CIS countries threatens the positions of the local post-Soviet elite, regardless of whether they are drawn from nomenklatura or "democratic" ranks. It is anyone's guess where and in what form these threats to the local authorities will arise. Given this situation, the danger of a communist revenge in Russia and the attempt to restore the Soviet Union are only catalysts in a long-standing process of integration.

The list of governments that are seeking to solve their problems through a firmer union is not surprising. For Belarus, poor in natural resources and fully dependent on Russia for its supply of gas and oil, there is simply no economic alternative. This explains in large part the support of much of the Belarussian population for integration with Russia. According to a census carried out in 1989, over one half of Kazakhstan's population is Russian-speaking. If relations with Russia were to disintegrate, the country could easily share the fate of Bosnia. Russia is Kazakhstan's main economic partner. The country depends a great deal on Russian suppliers and consumers. Tiny Kyrgyzstan could not feel at ease among its powerful neighbors without the economic and political support of Russia.

The basis for a new union, a customs union, has already begun to work. Although Russian exports last year to the CIS states have shrunk by 7.7 percent compared with 1994, imports have risen by 27.4 percent. On the post-Soviet territory, however, economic interests will not be the determining factor in the countries' development for quite some time. Therefore, renewed integration has begun only in response to the threat of dangerous political and social challenges. Paradoxically, the danger of restoring the former union has given a strong impetus for a new unification on a different basis.

Pavel Kandel is an analyst at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Europe. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.