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Commentary: Putin steps abroad, even as an international warrant hangs over his head

BELGRADE: Over the years, Russia has sought to preserve its sphere of influence with most former Soviet republics using the instrument of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But as the war in Ukraine has weakened Moscow’s position globally, so too in the post-Soviet arena.

The upcoming summit of the Council of Heads of State of the CIS, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, along with Turkmenistan as an associate member, will represent an opportunity for Moscow to create an illusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not isolated on the world stage.

Scheduled for Oct 13 in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of Bishkek, Putin’s visit to the landlocked Central Asian nation will be the Russian leader’s first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him on Mar 17 over alleged crimes in the invasion of Ukraine. The number of countries where Putin can freely travel has since narrowed.

This week, on Oct 4, Armenia – Russia’s nominal ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – ratified the ICC’s founding Rome Statute subjecting itself to the jurisdiction of the court in The Hague. Countries that have signed and ratified the Rome Statute are obliged to arrest Putin. Kyrgyzstan signed the Rome Statute on Dec 8, 1998, but has not yet ratified it.

It will be telling to see if Putin will turn a blind eye to Yerevan’s decision and meet with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the CIS meeting.

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CIS MEMBERS AT ODDS

Although Sergey Lebedev, Secretary General of the CIS, said that “most of the CIS members have confirmed their participation in the summit”, it is still unclear if Pashinyan will come to the Kyrgyz capital, especially given tense relations between Armenia and Russia that have culminated following the exodus of the Armenian population from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Last year, during the CIS summit in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev publicly confronted each other.

Given recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, a new public feud between the two leaders should not be ruled out, even though Muratbek Azymbakiev, Head of the Foreign Policy Department of the Executive Office of the President of Kyrgyzstan, insists that “important decisions will be made” on Oct 13.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are not the only CIS members that are at odds. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – also Russia’s allies in the CSTO – have a history of sporadic border clashes. Reports suggest that the two neighbouring Central Asian states are building up forces preparing for another round of hostilities.

In the past, it was Russia that mediated the border dispute between Bishkek and Dushanbe. But that could change.

Since the Kremlin, as a result of its debacle in Ukraine, continues to lose influence among its allied nations, it is entirely possible that other global and regional actors – be it the United States, Turkey, or China – will seek to increase their presence in Central Asia, a region that has traditionally been in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit.

Such an outcome would undoubtedly have an effect on Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Russia. Russian analysts claim that the United States and the European Union want to push Kyrgyzstan to distance itself from Russia, seeking to provoke a war or even build a NATO base in Kyrgyzstan.

Putin is due to visit a Russian air base in the Kyrgyz city of Kant, east Bishkek, for the 20th anniversary of its opening and this may be an attempt to stoke such concerns.

It is certain the Kremlin will seek to use the upcoming CIS summit to strengthen its influence in Kyrgyzstan where large parts of the population remain supportive of Russia’s leadership. But with other CIS members, excluding Belarus, the Kremlin will have a hard time.

Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.

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