President Vladimir Putin turned 70 on Friday (7 October) amid fawning congratulations from subordinates and a lacklustre summit he organised in St. Petersburg with the leaders of former Soviet Republics.
Putin is facing the biggest challenge of his rule after the invasion of Ukraine triggered the gravest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, leaving his army reeling from a series of defeats in the past month.
The informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) gathered the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, the President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedov and the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Moldova is also a member of CIS but was not represented at the gathering.
From the video footage available, the guests’ body language can hardly be described as cheerful.
The Russian agency Tass announced that Lukashenko would offer as a birthday present to Putin a “handmade ‘Belarus’ tractor”. He was quoted as saying he used an identical machine.
Reportedly, during the event, the leaders of the CIS countries discussed priority areas of the organisation’s activities and plans to strengthen and further develop mutually beneficial cooperation.
A video released by the Kremlin shows Putin saying that “tragic events are taking place in Ukraine and conflicts are taking place among CIS countries, and this requires the development of measures to solve them”.
Aliyev and Pashinyan are the only participants in the St. Petersburg gathering who also attended the European Political Community summit in Prague the previous day.
Azerbaijan and Armenia accuse each other of breaking a cease-fire between the warring nations, with at least 286 people were killed last month.
Nevertheless, Aliyev and Pashinyan sat next to each other around a table appearing too big for the host and its seven guests.
The St Petersburg gathering makes little sense, given that the same leaders will meet next week in the capital of Kazakhstan on the occasion of summits of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia (CICA, 13 October) and a formal CIS summit (14 October).
Putin also said that Tokayev proposed the creation of an organisation in the CIS framework “to promote and preserve the Russian language”.
However, the official policy of the former Soviet republics is of nation-building by promoting the national language. Russian remains a ‘lingua franca’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia but is clearly losing importance with the change of generations.