The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) succeeded the Soviet Union. It was founded by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in December 1991. The CIS has a population of 280 million and an area of 8.5 million square miles (13.7 million square kilometers). All former Soviet republics except Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined the organization. The Baltic republics elected to tie their future to integration with other European groups, primarily the European Union and NATO. President Vladimir Putin has stated that expanding ties with the other CIS nations remains Russia’s absolute priority. This makes sense, because the city of Moscow is the natural nucleus for the integration of former Soviet republics.

Improving the standard of living within the 12 former Soviet republics will happen only if they can overcome the legacy of 70 years of state domination of most aspects of life. Poorly managed industrial enterprises and agricultural units still hinder economic vitality. Many new countries within the CIS also have tumultuous political situations to overcome. The old-style party-state organization has slowed down progress and hindered change. Reforming each republic’s economy is an absolute necessity for future growth. Because of the way the Soviet Union’s economy was organized, CIS members will continue to depend on the Russian Federation. They need its energy, raw materials, and financial aid.

Russia’s relationship with its neighbors often generates political problems.With its size and power, it has the ability to influence CIS partners’ internal affairs. Russia considers itself the main regional power and acts accordingly. Some former republics still host the Russian military, while others depend on Russia for their oil and natural gas distribution. In the winter of 2005, Russia suddenly increased the prices of energy exported to Ukraine, a move analysts labeled strictly political. Moscow justified its actions as simply being an attempt to create real market conditions for the export of its energy.

Although the West criticized Russia for this action, the problem really stemmed from Ukraine’s dependence upon Russian energy imports. Similarly, the European Union lacks sufficient energy production to meet its growing demands, a fact Russia manipulates for its own political and economic gains. Despite political obstacles, the economic reality dictates a close relationship among CIS countries. They depend on Russia for the import of energy, but also for exports of their own products, because Russia is their biggest trade partner. This is particularly significant in central Asia and the Caucasus. The landlocked nature of those countries, and global competition, currently prevents their economic expansion beyond the Russian economic realm of more than 140 million consumers. In the aftermath of changes that led to the Soviet Union’s dissolution, former republics expressed serious concern about the possibility of Russian military intervention throughout the region. As a remnant of the old Soviet structure, Russia had military bases in each of the newly independent countries. This fear, however, was unjustified. Russia kept removing troops and clearing out bases.

Today, only small military facilities, the result of bilateral agreements, are present in some of the former republics. Kazakhstan, because of the large presence of ethnic Russians, was perhaps the Soviet republic most concerned over its future when independence came in 1991. Now, however, the country holds an important strategic partnership with Russia. Its oil and natural gas are transported through Russian territory to Europe and elsewhere. Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company, holds significant stakes in Kazakhstan’s extraction and transport of fossil fuels. Moreover, the two countries are working closely to establish other mutually beneficial economic and political ties. Russia leases the land for its space station in Baikonur. Two countries agreed in 2006 to expand the joint space program. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged that the two countries will develop a commercial satellite launching system. Such a system will allow low-cost launching of smaller satellites directly from planes into space.

Russia and its neighbors have developed a mutual understanding that having a powerful neighbor next door helps everyone. It was Russia that limited the possibility for conflicts between former republics in the years of territorial consolidations. Although many internal conflicts existed, external conflicts remained limited. One can attribute the absence of such conflicts to Russia and its regional influence as a mediator.

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