BACKGROUND: After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Russia tried its best to prevent complete disintegration and to preserve its imperial control over of this vast geopolitical space, where Moscow tried to embody its own version of the “Monroe Doctrine.” Towards this goal, Russia has undertaken efforts within multiple formats and organizations – the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and EEU being the most prominent among them. CIS was created in 1991 and the EEU in 2015.
Being portrayed as a model for the peaceful divorce of the former Soviet republics, CIS has already existed for 32 years and stagnated as an inefficient structure that failed to turn the divorce into the reintegration that Russia wanted it to achieve. Out of 15 former Soviet republics only eight – less than half – remain members of the CIS. Of eight CIS countries, five are Central Asian and the other three are Russia, Belarus and Armenia. During almost one third of a century, the young independent states have adapted to the international system and world politics, and diversified their foreign policies and partners. The ongoing war in Ukraine has spurred further diversification in all spheres, thereby making CIS even less relevant.
Moscow has recently sought to compensate for the dysfunctionality of the formal CIS with informal summits, hoping to create a political climate of friendship and empathy among the presidents of the member states. President Putin tirelessly summons at least two informal summits every year alongside the formal one.
This trend runs in parallel with the “integration” process within the EEU, which has only five members – Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Created in 2015, the EEU obviously has served as a geopolitical umbrella for Moscow in its efforts to foment collectivity out of former Soviet debris. However, this organization has proven to be another, rather truncated Commonwealth, like CIS minus three.
Putin currently seems to have resorted to the old “stick and carrot” principle in order to fix the declining Russian empire. For example, on New Year’s Eve one Russian chauvinist – a former State Duma deputy and currently the co-chair of A Just Russia Party – called for joining Uzbekistan with Russia. This was a threatening message that received sharp reactions in Uzbekistan, from the President, the Speaker of the parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as civil society, mass media and the public.
IMPLICATIONS: Against this backdrop, Moscow undertakes various soft power efforts that signify its strategy to maintain leverage in the former Soviet space. In the previous EEU summit, for example, Putin spoke about the importance of digital sovereignty, financial independence, common principles and standards of education, healthcare and even state management.
At the CIS Bishkek summit on October 13, 2023, member states agreed to set up the International Russian Language Organization. The headquarters of the Organization were to be located in the Russian city Sochi with an even broader mission of advancing the Russian language within and outside the CIS. As a follow up of this process, at the CIS informal summit in December 2023, Putin suggested to create a Eurasian cinema academy and cinema awards.
How the mixture of recent initiatives promoted during CIS formal/informal summits and in EEU summits are to be realized remains ambiguous. For instance, common standards of state management and education, or digital sovereignty, and the work of the Russian Language Organization and others are quite controversial ideas since they all have geopolitical connotations.
There was little visible enthusiasm among the participants of these summits who just accepted these suggestions on cooperation in the cultural-humanitarian sphere tacitly, without any discussion of their advantages or drawbacks. They can obviously benefit Russia as means of power projection. However, this Russian strategy contrasts with the comprehensive diversification trend that all former Soviet republics engage in as young independent states, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. Comprehensive diversification includes political, economic, security, transport, energy, culture, education, ideology and other spheres, which blunts Russia’s attempt to employ its “rich” toolkit of soft power.
Indeed, Russia’s soft power policy cannot but collide with alternative soft powers. One sharp example is the unification of six countries within the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) in which, for example, a common Turkic alphabet was proposed by the Turkish President. Turkic films are gaining greater popularity than Russian films. The organization TURKSOY is realizing common cultural and scientific projects in OTS countries.
During the OTS summit that took place in November 2023, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev noted that “The Turkic World Vision 2040 has been adopted. Most importantly, we have strengthened the unity of brotherly countries. We have demonstrated to the world our adherence to common values. We are fulfilling the will of our ancestors and strengthening cooperation among Turkic nations. We must maintain our unity based on mutual trust and solidarity in order to pass it on to the next generation. It is also important to promote each other’s TV series shot in our countries. In particular, we should widely promote animated films for kids. We think that social networks and popular media personalities can be involved for this purpose. It will certainly create an opportunity for the spiritual rapprochement of the youth.”
Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in turn, suggested to adopt the Charter of OTS. This OTS summit indicated strong alternatives to Putin’s proposals made during the EEU and informal CIS summits, including on language, films, culture, education, energy, finances, various standards, as well as security. It is notable that out of nine CIS members, five are Central Asians and six are OTS states, which constitute the majority of the CIS structure by number. Therefore, any efforts on the Russian part to showcase collectivity within CIS/EEU only obscure the decline of its integration model for Eurasia.
It should be noted that although CIS was designed as a “model of peaceful divorce,” this divorce was not always peaceful: wars in Georgia and Ukraine, military control of Transdniestria, threats to Kazakhstan, and pressure on Uzbekistan, ultimately eroded the friendly and peaceful atmosphere between Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.
In these conditions, the five Central Asian states, together with Azerbaijan, could coordinate and consolidate their stances within CIS/EEU in order to prioritize their own unity. Nominal participation of Central Asian states in CIS or EEU summits should not turn into self-misleading policy.
CONCLUSIONS: Evidently, Moscow makes all possible efforts in order to implement its strategy to maintain leverage towards former Soviet republics, using hybrid measures including hard power and soft power toolkits. Most of these efforts are made within EEU and CIS simultaneously. However, both organizations have discredited themselves as inefficient entities constructed to forward Russia’s geopolitical agenda. Both have limits in their activity and development, not least due to the war in Ukraine and the comprehensive diversification strategy among its junior members.
Russian political rhetoric and propaganda often reiterates the notion of the “Collective West” against which Moscow is eager to create its own collective. However, the fiasco of the formal CIS stipulated Russia’s creation of its informal “pillar.” The exhibition of the formal/informal CIS and EEU in the form of frequent and irrelevant summits, obviously, cannot mitigate the image of Russia as an aggressor and imperialist power. Constant references to and efforts to capitalize on miserable remnants of the Soviet legacy cannot be efficient, given the generational factor: the two youngest generations have no memory of the Soviet Union and have no reason for nostalgia of it. Therefore, without ideological and political reinvention of Russia’s attitude towards its former satellites in accordance with non-imperial principles, any exercises in formalizing EEU and informalizing CIS will likely fail.
In this context, the Central Asian states will face the strategic challenge of choosing or prioritizing their own regional structure even at the expense of the Eurasian one.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan,” Tashkent, Uzbekistan.