From Minsk to the West: four messages

Zaur Shiriyev

The past week has seen two important summits hosted in the Belarusian capital that is Minsk: the session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council (EEC), and a meeting of the Commonwealth Independent States' (CIS) heads of state.These meetings have sent messages that are resonating across the post-Soviet area.

The meetings took place under the shadow of recent attacks and police raids inRussia; increased tension and antagonism against Moscow among “non-Russians”(notably, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested by sending twodiplomatic notes); and, particularly, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev'swithdrawal from the CIS summit. Kyrgyzstan was represented by the first vice-premier minister. This was read as an unofficial protest against Moscow's detentionand deportation of Kyrgyz migrants.Although the two summits had different agendas, the EEC meetings were attended bycurrent members of the customs union (CU) along with candidates for membership.Close analysis of statements and speeches reveals some important messages for theregion:1. “Calling Georgia back to the CIS”Politicians tend to ignore statements by the Belarusian President as they are oftencontradictory and inward-looking. Alexander Lukashenko's statement at the close ofthe summit indicating that CIS leaders “would like Georgia to return to theCommonwealth” should be read as originating from Moscow rather than Minsk.Georgia left the CIS after the 2008 war with Russia, but since the “Georgian Dream”coalition came to power, Tbilisi has sought to normalize relations with Moscow.However, the possibility of rejoining the CIS has never been stated at the official levelby either side. For this reason, the recent call by Lukashenko came as a surprise, givenMoscow's de jure recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which is the key issuefor the normalization of Moscow-Tbilisi relations -- indeed, a “red line” for Georgia.Given the ongoing Geneva talks on this issue, it doesn't make sense for Tbilisi torejoin the CIS. The only logical explanation is that Russia wants to see an overt policyshift by Tbilisi, away from the previous government's pro-Western policy. Certainly,the issue is controversial -- such an act would not be acceptable to the pro-Westernelites in Georgia or its European partners. In the absence of an agreed upon roadmapfor normalization, a decision by Georgia to rejoin the CIS would be misunderstoodand provide another reason to label the current government as pro-Russian.

2. “The Eurasian Union does not mean a return to the Soviet Union” Moscow's pressure on the former Soviet republics to join the so-called Eurasian Union -- a political union to buttress the economic cooperation via the CU -- has been interpreted in Western-oriented countries as Putin's personal, hegemonic ambition. However, Russia's so called “soft power” techniques have irritated post-Soviet countries, mainly Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. It appears that the CU is trying to create a different image. During the EEC summit, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed allowing Turkey, and possibly even Syria, to join. Russia reported that India is interested in joining. The biggest surprise was Nazarbayev's claim that the Turkish president has shown interest in CU membership, a move which Russia has already said it would support. Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary said that Russia would be happy if Turkey wanted to join the CU. Turkey's trade agreement with the EU makes this impossible, but Ankara is developing its political “maneuvering space.” Turkey's trade policy with Central Asian states would suffer if that region joined the CU. For Azerbaijan, internal discussions indicate that Baku would only consider CU membership if Ankara also joined. This seems unrealistic, given Armenia's position in the CU and Ankara's refusal to participate in a Moscow-controlled organization. 3. “Kiev must choose” The battle over Ukraine between Moscow and Brussels continues, and the upcoming Vilnius summit is crucial for Kiev's future political orientation. In Minsk, Putin reiterated that Kiev cannot belong to both the EU's free trade zone and the CU. After the meeting, the two countries' presidents met in Sochi, and the foreign ministers met in another Russian city, Rostov-on-Don. According to media reports, Putin failed to convince President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon his European ambitions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statement on Oct. 28, that citizens of both countries must show passports rather than national identity cards at the Russia-Ukraine border crossing, is one indicator that Russia is tightening its grip; among themselves, CIS countries generally do not require visas. 4. “Resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict precondition for Armenian's CU membership” At the Minsk summits, the CU members accepted preliminary procedures for Yerevan's accession to the CU, and the “road map” for full accession will be finalized soon. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh is Baku's primary concern, as Azerbaijan totally opposes the separatist regime benefiting from CU trade. Interestingly, the president of Belarus emphasized that Armenia must resolve its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and stated that CU members will be taking into account Azerbaijan's position. However, according to the Armenian media, Lukashenko also spoke of the possibility of Nagorno-Karabakh's gaining special status in the CU. This issue seems

to be producing new controversies and statements every day. But one thing is sure; such statements have a clear message for Baku: If you don't want to be abandoned, you must consider joining the CU. But at the same time, declarations that CU members will take into account Baku's opinion may prevent the strategic goals of Armenia. When Yerevan decided to join the CU, the security issue was highlighted for Armenian society -- it was a clear motivating factor. Now, this statement, and the European Parliament's Oct. 24 resolution, which clearly stated that “Armenia must withdraw its troops from occupied Azerbaijani lands,” does not bode well. Finally, the fallout of the two summits indicates that messages are no longer traveling “from Minsk to Minsk,” but rather from Moscow to the region via Minsk.