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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Does CIS Have Future?

Does the Commonwealth of Independent States have a future? The historic role of the CIS has been to promote the civilized divorce of the republics of the former Soviet Union. When the commonwealth was created in 1991, you could hardly expect it to serve as a mechanism for integration. The integration of the former republics could go no further. On the contrary, the very emergence of the CIS on the ruins of the Soviet Union was the result of the process of growing disintegration at the start of the '90s.

But in order to answer the question about the future of such a commonwealth, it is necessary to take into account the significance of what has not yet been divided up. Something has remained of the former union. This includes, for example, the high level of economic ties and compatibility of markets. To this day, 35 percent of foreign trade turnover of all the CIS countries takes place within the commonwealth. And this includes the huge foreign trade turnover of Russia. Other CIS countries make up only 23 percent of Russia's share of foreign trade. For the majority of other CIS countries, however, the share of foreign trade within the commonwealth is close to half the entire volume and sometimes higher. But the main thing that holds the countries of the commonwealth together is communications.

To divide up what remains could take a very long time. And if communications have not yet been partitioned, then it is probably not going to be very easy to do so.

During the hundreds of years of being within a more or less unified political and economic territory, the current countries of the commonwealth have acquired many specific characteristics that not only allow for, but require, cooperation. The Soviet borders were an entirely real economic barrier that separated the republics of the former union from neighboring countries. This was especially the case with the Asian part of the former Soviet Union. The eastern countries of the commonwealth are still very dependent for their transport on countries west of them. The states of Central Asia depend on Russia, and Russia, in turn, depends on Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic countries. Unfortunately, for most CIS countries, other more advantageous economic outlets onto the world market will be a long time in coming because they are located too far from world industrial centers.

The experiences of all developed regions in the world set a telling example for the economic expediency of close collaboration among countries of the so-called post-Soviet territory. Both in Europe and America and the Asian Pacific rim, the most important foreign trading partners are close neighbors. For Britain, Germany, Italy and France, the major trading partners are the countries of the European Union. The United States is Canada's major partner, and vice versa. One-sided dependence on a far-off partner and the lack of foreign trade with neighboring countries is, on the contrary, characteristic of the developing world.

One should not discount the common psychological atmosphere and social and political traditions on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The mentality of people of the CIS is still largely Soviet. But the very fact of such closeness also has a purely market value: This facilitates the establishment of business contacts and the intermingling of CIS citizens who almost universally have a command of Russian.

Some states continue to share common geopolitical interests and threats such as Chinese expansion and Islamic fundamentalism.

All these factors should promote not only existing contacts within the post-Soviet world that arose in conditions of a command-administrative economy but new market-based ties.

During the seven years of economic reforms in all the CIS countries, the state has mostly dominated the economies. One proof of the lack of a market in many of these countries is the large quantity of nonpayments that have resulted from the artificial inflation of prices on industrial production. Can there be a market in which you don't need to pay for goods?

The leaders of the newly independent countries justify keeping the levers of running the economy in the hands of the state by their concerns for their peoples and a wish to avoid shock therapy. Such demagogy is being used to varying degrees by authoritarian regimes as an instrument of self-defense. The elites in power understand that economic competition sooner or later requires political competition, which could threaten the current authorities.

There is no free market just as there are no free intergovernmental ties. Economic relations between states are defined by political contacts among the power elites. In the CIS, politics is higher than economics. It is no surprise then that such contacts carry more expenditures than bring in revenues.

If the CIS is to have a chance at a future, market mechanisms must be worked out. The CIS countries will draw closer not through "friendship" among leaders, but through mutual penetration of capital. People have been talking about the need for removing the ideological aspect of economic relations from the CIS for years. But for this to take place, states must set aside purely political interests and open the road to business.

The future of the commonwealth depends on Russia's economic success. The more it is able to demonstrate to other countries its market successes, the more other CIS countries will be willing to follow Russia's lead on the path to reform. If Russia cannot establish itself as a regional economic center, then we can expect the emergence of further self-isolated, totalitarian regimes that are constantly at enmity with one another and that search for, instead of Russia, other -- solvent -- leaders, regardless of the substantial transport costs.

Andrei Susarov is a scholar at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Geography and an expert at the Center for Ethno-Political and Regional Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.