When the Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991 in the midst of an abortive coup, the world saw Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank as the epitome of democracy for the new Russian nation, a fresh start for a series of nations oppressed for decades by the communist machine. In each of the 15 nations which seceded from the Union however, further questions needed to be asked – without the solidarity and size of the USSR, many of the newly independent states found themselves desperate fro some form of co-operation, mutual assistance in a dangerous world.
What followed was the Commonwealth of Independent States, signed into existence by the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in December 1991 as the formal continuation of international ties which had been developed internally during the Soviet era. Two weeks later, all bar four of the former republics added their signatures to the document, with only the three Baltic states and Georgia opting out – the latter arriving late to the party at the end of 1993.
Today, the exact make-up of the CIS is slightly more complicated. Georgia withdrew from the collective as a result of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, whilst Turkmenistan signed the agreement but refused to ratify the group’s charter, officially becoming an associate member in 2005 as a symbolic gesture of its UN-backed neutrality. Ukraine, one of the founder members of the CIS, also refused to rubber-stamp the finer details, resenting Russia’s claim as heir to the USSR – to this day Ukraine remains a de facto, rather than official, CIS member.
What all this means is far from clear in pure geo-political terms. Since NATO’s preeminence in global diplomatic affairs has been established, many of the CIS nations have drifted towards their former Cold War opponents. Turkmenistan’s official neutrality aside, unaffiliated Georgia has courted US and NATO approval, much to the chagrin of their former Russian rulers. The vast natural resources in the Caspian Basin has also caught the attention of the West, and negotiations over everything from mutual defence agreements to oil pipeline directions have served only to blur the boundaries.
That isn’t to say that the CIS is a redundant body. Indeed, the umbrella has proved usual in forging co-operation among the former Soviet states – a free trade agreement has been established between the majority of member states, the Eurasian Economic Community is attempting to create a common market for the vast energy resources in the region, whilst security and military co-operation is a fundamental part of the system.
In the sporting arena, the Commonwealth never really took off. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, a combined CIS team took part in place of the USSR in both editions of the 1992 Olympic Games, whilst a footballing equivalent emerged winless from Euro 92, holding German and Dutch opposition to consecutive draws before being embarrassed by Scotland and departing at the group stage. Following that tournament, independent states took control of their own sporting affairs, resulting in the somewhat unusual example of footballers picking up caps for three different national teams – USSR, CIS, and their new nation.
Logically, new nations required new leagues, and the shake-up which took place in 1992 took the old Soviet Top League firmly off the European footballing map. Where Dinamos from Moscow, Kyiv and Tbilisi would once contest the Soviet title, the three teams found themselves in three separate countries, and abandoning their previous outrageous away trips for shorter, but equally unimaginable journeys across a smaller region. Of the 16 teams competing in the final season of Soviet football, six nations were represented across two continents – six clubs each from Russia and Ukraine joined by representatives from Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Suddenly, teams who had never dreamed of top flight football in the Soviet era were catapulted into their respective top flights, a wealth of regional clubs thrust into the limelight by mass promotion and reorganisation. Some sides are yet to recover.
Since then, the results of the various nations have been somewhat predictable. Russia and Ukraine share the headlines, clubs such as Zenit, CSKA, Rubin and Spartak joining the quartet of Dinamo, Shakhtar and emerging Dnipro and Metalist in European adventures. Meanwhile, the teams that benefitted so greatly from being the flagship club of an unrepresented republic – Ararat Yerevan, Pamir Dushanbe, even Dinamo Tbilisi, former Cup Winners’ Cup champions – have struggled to various degrees since their unofficial privilege has been withdrawn.
Talk of a return to the Soviet Top League has rarely entered the mainstream, with those able to instigate such a move – namely Russia and Ukraine – content with their position as growing footballing powers on the European stage. Russia’s club may have struggled this season, but both Zenit and CSKA made it into the Champions League knockout rounds in 2011-12. this year, Shakhtar will once again fly the Ukrainian flag into spring.
However, in recent weeks, things have changed. Ideas tend to gather steam when they have money behind them, and that is exactly what has happened. Following a regrettable incident at Dinamo Moscow’s Arena Khimki, which saw home goalkeeper Anton Shunin hospitalised by a flare thrown from the Zenit fans, the game was abandoned and after much mud-slinging behind the scenes, Dinamo were awarded a 3-0 win. Zenit paid out a fine, but were more injured by the default loss and two home games being forced behind closed doors.
In the aftermath, Zenit began to make noises about leaving the Russian league system, following on from a threat made in petulance as the incident unfolded. From any other club, this may have gone unheeded – after all, where would Zenit play, and what would become of their club? However, in recent days they have expanded on their proposal, suggesting a united CIS league spanning some, if not all, of the former Soviet states. In essence, a diluted return to the Soviet Top League.
Zenit’s position has suddenly made people sit up and take notice. Within days, representatives from CSKA Moscow, Rubin Kazan, Belarussian champions BATE Borisov and a handful of Ukrainian clubs all voiced their support of the matter, resulting in an official spokesman for UEFA, who would have final veto over the league, expressing a willingness to discuss the idea once plans were more formal.
The reason is simple – Gazprom. Zenit are the club sponsored by the Russian energy giant, a fact often levelled at them in criticism of high wage bills and transfer bills. To hear Alexei Miller, Gazprom’s CEO, give his backing to a CIS tournament, has suggested to many that Gazprom, one of the most profitable companies in the world thanks in part to a number of beneficial deals within the CIS, are willing to sponsor the project. What the clubs in question are hearing is the sound of large sums of money being deposited into their bank accounts.
Political considerations mean that a full Top League reunion is unlikely – Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, would be unlikely to consider joint participation – and there would be a great deal of work to do in figuring out European qualification from each individual nation. Then there are the fans to consider – on the one hand, away attendances in nations as large as Russia are already miserable, and for obvious reasons. On the other, with such a low base to begin from, could a Eurasian superleague actually be the catalyst to attract greater attention to the game?
The likelihood of the latter is low given the distances involved and prevalence of other sports in various regions, but the notion remains an intriguing one. Lower league football in the smaller countries would almost certainly die unless the proposed league is separate from existing structures – there would simply be too much competition for promotions. However, depending on just how much money Gazprom and other investors are willing to put in, even this strategic hurdle could be sidestepped.
From a pure nostalgic point of view, there is a certain appeal to prospect of Spartak Moscow playing Dinamo Kyiv one week, Dinamo Tbilisi the next, and Pamir Dushanbe in the midweek cup tie. For ‘new’ members of the elite such as Zenit and Rubin, there is a sense in which they could rewrite history, showing themselves as equals of the legendary clubs of the past by claiming CIS honours. With Gazprom on board, the financial incentives available to participants would be substantial, far beyond anything currently on offer outside of Russia and potentially Ukraine.
However, logistically a CIS tournament would be a nightmare. Distance is already a killer for many small teams, and opening the league up even further would either force further regionalisation or ramp up the cost of playing. Small clubs in small nations could easily be marginalised in favour of new flagship teams, and there is little chance of attendances increasing as international travel comes into play.
In theory, a CIS league is an appealing call back to days of Soviet competition, when teams from behind the Iron Curtain could take on Europe and occasionally win. In reality, the practicalities should kill it before it gets off the ground. However, with Gazprom and the Kremlin itself backing Zenit’s call, do not be surprised if this one keeps rumbling on for some time yet.