With his popularity plummeting to an all-time low and his nation still locked in a protracted war against neighbouring Russia and its separatist proxies in the country’s east, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko has signed a decree that formally ended Kyiv’s membership in the loose grouping of former Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent (CIS), a move the embattled Ukrainian president said was the final step in his government’s efforts to formally cut ties with political both economic unions still headed by Moscow.
“I have signed an order on the withdrawal of all Ukrainian representatives from all CIS statutory bodies today. We have nothing to do there; we are headed for Europe,” Poroshenko said at the weekend during celebrations marking ‘Europe Day” in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa, the hometown of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, adding, “The future of Ukraine is with Europe.”
A relic of the period when Russia and the other 14 republics were looking to gradually disengage from one another, the CIS was set up in late 1991as a loose economic and political grouping of former Soviet republics – one that in many respects resembled the decentralised state that Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged for the Soviet Union in August 1991. That union was, of course, derailed by a coup led by Communist Party hardliners and the KGB who believed that any loosening of Moscow’s power would lead to the unravelling of the Soviet state.
When that exact result came to pass four months later, Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin – the leaders of the core Slavic republics – controversially dissolved the Soviet Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States in its place’
Enthusiasm for the CIS has largely disintegrated since the mid-1990s when it was seen as a viable tool to manage ‘the civil divorce’ between the 15 Soviet republics. That illusion was shattered fairly early on as the new Commonwealth was essentially stillborn as several key republics refused to join, including the more economically advanced Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Georgia, which was small in terms of its economic importance, but symbolically and psychologically important as it had been key to consolidating Moscow’s power in the Caucasus for nearly three centuries.
Georgia, however, endured a contentious relationship with Moscow from the start. Under its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia had refused Russia’s requests to join the nearly created entity, but following his overthrow in early 1992 and with his successor, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, trapped in the besieged Abkhaz capital Sukhumi in September of the following year, Tbilisi was forced to accept the Kremlin’s demands that it join the CIS in exchange for Moscow ordering the victorious Abkhaz to agree to a ceasefire.
Georgia later quit as a member in August 2008 following the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War over its other breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
Far important creating any legitimacy for the Commonwealth was Ukraine, by far the most important republic in the Soviet Union in terms of the size of its population, overall wealth, its industrial and agricultural output, as well as its overall contribution to the cultural and intellectual side of Soviet life, where it was second only to Russia in this regard.
But much to Moscow’s dismay, Kyiv never ratified the CIS charter and remained an increasingly contentious associate member for the next two decades as the governments of Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yushchenko, and Viktor Yanukovych became less and less interested in being a party to the union.
As the 1990s gave way to the new millennium, the same lack of enthusiasm for the CIS that could be seen in Ukraine’s could also be felt in its other member states, most of whom viewed the CIS as an administrative tool used by Russia to protect its national interests in areas that were once their imperial possessions.
Ultimately, the CIS failed in the key areas that it was designed to oversee – the peaceful dismemberment of the former Soviet. More than a half-dozen bloody separatist and civil wars broke out in the Caucasus, Tajikistan, and Moldova between 1991-1994 and still unresolved territorial disputes and petty separatist movements still plague the region.
None of this was lost on Poroshenko when making his announcement. By declaring Ukraine’s participation in the CIS to be at an end and that his country’s future is with the EU, Poroshenko helped put the final nail in the coffin of that exceptionally short period of time just after the red flag of the Soviet Union was hauled down for the last time and when the leaders of the newly independent states believed they could carve out a future for each other in a civilised and peaceful manner.