BACKGROUND: Ukraine has been a hesitant member of the CIS and even of the late USSR. When the so-called Novo-Ogarevo process was launched on drafting the new Union treaty in September 1991 by eight former Soviet republics, Ukraine refrained from taking part in that process. And when the then Presidents of Russia (Boris Yeltsin), Belarus (Stanislav Shushkevich), and Ukraine (Leonid Kravchuk) met in Belovejskaya Pusha near Minsk on 7-8 December 1991 to announce the break-up of the USSR and the establishment of the CIS, Yeltsin justified the decision by stating that the new Union could not be created without Ukraine. Hence, Ukraine opted not to enter a reformed USSR, but instead became one of the founders of the CIS.
For Ukraine, the CIS has since its inception remained a convenient framework for multilateral engagement with Russia and other member states because it is a very loose and weak organization. But when six CIS countries established the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2002, Ukraine again stood aloof because it was a stronger integration framework than the CIS. Ukraine has also resisted membership in the Russia-initiated Custom Union and Eurasian Union. Despite its role as a co-founder of the CIS, Kiev has since 1991 remained reluctant towards deeper integration with Russia. Ironically, Ukraine took on the CIS chairmanship this year and the overthrown President Yanukovych had been the CIS chairman since January 2014.
The 2014 “Ukrainian spring” highlighted, among other things, the cautious but persistent pro-European inclination of all Ukrainian governments since independence. Meanwhile, the mass uprising and overthrow of President Yanukovych in February, and the concomitant rise of dormant anti-Russian forces also revealed the fragility of Ukraine's statehood and national project on the one hand, and the fragile CIS and failed post-Soviet re-integration on the other.
For Central Asia, the events in Ukraine can be interpreted as a "moment of truth." Astana, Bishkek and Tashkent initially issued official statements on the events in Ukraine in March and spoke out for the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty. They expressed concern about the course of events. Bishkek’s statement was more cautious and Dushanbe’s position was rather pro-Russian. These statements could be considered as a warning message addressed not only towards Ukraine by stressing the importance of a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but also towards Russia. However, after Crimea’s de facto secession and annexation to Russia, Astana and Bishkek slightly changed their positions, issuing statements cautiously expressing “understanding” and “recognition” of the fait accompli.
IMPLICATIONS: The Ukrainian crisis revealed a strong divergence in the interpretation and application of international law on the part of great powers, regarding their own behavior as well as their attitude towards smaller states. Russian representatives repeatedly mentioned the Kosovo precedent to justify the annexation of Crimea. Hence in the course of events, Moscow not only retaliated against Kiev but also made a point of legitimizing that retaliation in exchanges with Washington. This is a problematic precedent for smaller countries in the post-Soviet space, because it demonstrates the vague and ad-hoc nature of the international order in this part of the world.
Russia has been unable to enlist definite and resolute support for its actions in Ukraine from the CIS states for at least three reasons: First, Moscow could not properly justify the annexation of Crimea and provide persuasive claims on the basis of international law; second, Russia preferred to use hard power in dealing with the Ukrainian challenge instead of the widely popularized soft-power policy directed to its so-called "near abroad" that Russia itself has recently announced; and third, Russia demonstrated a cold-war, anti-Western pattern of international behavior and thereby increased the pressure on other former Soviet republics cooperating with the West.
It should be noticed that in such a context, separatism can become an increasing tendency in some areas of the post-Soviet independent states inhabited by sizable Russian-speaking communities and that fanning these processes has become a brand of Russia’s foreign policy. The secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 has not so far led to these two splinter provinces of Georgia joining the Russian Federation, but secession of Crimea has. Russia has now acquired an additional unfriendly, not to say hostile, neighbor (after Georgia and Moldova). After Crimea's separation, Ukraine’s European drift will likely take a new and bolder impetus.
In this perspective, one of the side-effects of the Ukrainian drama is that with all his recent statements related to the situation in Ukraine and the secession of Crimea, President Putin has in fact delegitimized the CIS. He stated that Ukraine's secession from the Soviet Union was illegal. However, this would be valid for all former USSR republics, including Russia – the USSR was ultimately cancelled due to a coup d’état led by former Russian President Yeltsin. By extension, Putin’s statement would imply that the CIS is illegitimate as well.
CIS institutions including the CSTO have been considerably marginalized due to their diplomatic paralysis during the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. This put Central Asian countries directly at odds with Russia and undermined multilateral structures which could potentially interfere in such crises. It is notable in this regard that Uzbekistan’s decision to exit the CSTO and distance itself from other Russia-led multilateral structures, which has been criticized by some experts, suddenly proved to be a prudent strategy. Uzbekistan's foreign ministry issued a second statement on Crimea's secession in late March in which Tashkent confirmed its previous position which, in contrast to other Central Asian counterparts, proved to be relatively more principled and consistent.
In the context of the Ukrainian drama, Central Asia is today facing a twofold challenge. Firstly, the challenge of continued partnership with NATO, resistance to which has become a key feature of Russia’s global posture in general and its policies during the Ukrainian crisis in particular. Secondly, the challenge of rebooting a regional cooperation format, given the fundamental crisis of the CIS. In the new circumstances, Tashkent could take the lead in reinvigorating the 23-year-old idea of regional integration.
CONCLUSIONS: Ukraine and Russia – two of the CIS' co-founders – are turning into two destroyers of the organization. The institutions of the CIS have been unable so far to intervene in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and contribute somehow to peace-building. Moreover, the separation of Crimea created a troublesome precedent that could potentially unleash a restructuring of the entire post-Soviet space. The Russian President, the State Duma and the Russian elite manifested themselves not so much as defenders of Russians against Ukrainian nationalists as they demonstrated their support for their own nationalists. In fact, Russian nationalism that has been on the rise recently, particularly regarding Central Asian labor migrants, was clearly demonstrated through the decisive actions against Ukraine and thereby, indirectly, against other post-Soviet states. In other words, Russia provided a clearly nationalistic response to the rise of Ukrainian nationalism.
The Crimea crisis will have profound geopolitical implications for Central Asia, where the events are understood as the expression of a new rise in Russia’s neo-imperialism. Over time, Moscow can repair this image in the eyes of countries and peoples on Russia’s perimeter, but one thing has once again become obvious: Central Asians, while attempting to resolve regional issues and construct their common regional home should concentrate on finding regional solutions rather than seeking great power mediation.
The CIS may be able to survive with only nine members but at least five of them – the states of Central Asia – now confront the existential question pertaining to the durability of their de jure sovereignty. The likelihood of future unilateral decisive actions by Moscow in the post-Soviet space, ignoring the interests of independent states on its perimeter, have strained Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe, Tashkent and Ashgabat who have so far only expressed cautious positions. Recent developments should prompt them to restore their frozen regional integration structure and revitalize a region-building process.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.