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CIS: Leaders To Focus On Economic Issues At Yalta Summit

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Commonwealth of Independent States leaders meet in Yalta for a two-day summit to focus on economic cooperation. The leaders are expected to approve the creation of a "united economic space" among Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, among other issues. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that past CIS summits have produced little of substance. She takes a look at prospects for success at this summit.

Moscow, 18 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are gathering in Yalta for a two-day summit expected to focus on economic issues.

CIS prime and foreign ministers are to meet today. Tomorrow will bring together the presidents of the CIS countries, which include all the former Soviet states except the three Baltic countries. Not attending the gathering are Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, who is seeking medical treatment in the U.S, and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who is reportedly vacationing on the Caspian Sea.

Reports say participants are expected to sign into existence an agreement linking Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and possibly Kyrgyzstan as part of a common economic zone, with common tariffs, as well as a more liberal flow of labor and capital. Details of the agreement were apparently worked out at an informal meeting last May in St. Petersburg.

If past summits are any guide, however, it's not clear if anything of substance will be accomplished. CIS leaders have talked about creating a common economic zone among the former Soviet states practically from the inception of the CIS in the early 1990s -- with little practical effect.

Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy director of the CIS Institute in Moscow, says that criticism may not be wholly justified. He says that CIS meetings are good opportunities for heads of state to meet face to face.

"These summits are the [occasion] to discuss mainly bilateral issues that have accumulated since the last summit between CIS member states," Zharikhin said. "It wouldn't be correct to expect from the summit some common declaration or position -- it's been a long time since collective political statements were made at these summits. Even during the Iraq crisis there were [none]. So it wouldn't be right to expect any now."

One example of an important bilateral issue to be discussed at the summit is the status of the Azov Sea, shared by Russia and Ukraine. Kyiv and Moscow have agreed to divide the sea between them but still do not agree on exact boundaries. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Vladimir Putin have made discussing the Azov a major part of their agenda.

Zharikhin is optimistic about such forms of "regional" cooperation such as the common economic space. He says agreements that link together states that share common economic or political interests have a better chance of succeeding than the more general types of agreements that characterized the earlier years of the commonwealth.

Christopher Granville, a chief strategist at UFG investment bank in London, agrees that such an economic zone would make good sense.

"It's a very reasonable proposal," he said. "It's not too ambitious -- a customs union, a single external tariff, free flows of capital and labor in a single market, all that makes sense. And I would say that politically, you can construct it simply on the basis of unanimity, on an intergovernmental basis -- there is no strict need for supranational institutions, or the delegation of parts of each country's sovereignty to some supranational power."

But Granville says, "whatever papers will be signed in Yalta," the treaty is pretty sure to fail.

"If your question is referring to the activities of the CIS in general, then [you are] absolutely right: nothing concrete ever emerges. If we're focusing on this latest economic integration initiative, it does look more realistic and politically more practicable than previous initiatives, but given the track record [of past CIS summits], I think most commentators would agree with me in thinking -- 'we will believe it when we see it.'"

Even if the common economic zone is agreed during the summit, it faces some prohibitive challenges.

Some ministers in Kuchma's cabinet have said an economic zone linking the country to Russia could compromise future integration with the European Union. They perceive the project as pulling Ukraine back into Russia's orbit.

As for Russia, even if a pragmatic Kremlin may like the idea of a common market, it's doubtful that all Russian industries would look favorably upon opening up the Russian market to competition from CIS manufacturers.