Prague, Jan. 16 (RFE/RL) - As Moscow sinks deeper into
the Chechen quagmire, the Kremlin is getting ready to unveil a series
of diplomatic initiatives in other trouble spots around the
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). With no end in sight to the
war against Chechen separatists, Moscow is seeking to rescue its
tarnished reputation and score a few successes in some other regions.
CIS leaders will gather in Moscow on Friday for a
regularly-scheduled semi-annual summit. As always, the topics to be
discussed are numerous and few expect significant issues to be
resolved during the one-day meeting. But there is something that
makes Friday's conference different from previous CIS functions.
Friday's agenda will be dominated by security issues rather than
economic ones -- pointing to an attempt by Moscow to forge closer
strategic links with its former subjects.
This attempt may bear fruit, as CIS countries in Central Asia and
the Caucasus increasingly look to the Moscow meeting to help resolve
some of their local conflicts. A fifth round of talks between the
government and Tajik rebels has been halted while both sides await a
decision on extending the mandate of CIS peacekeeping troops in that
country. Georgian leaders and separatist Abkhazians have both
appealed to the CIS leaders to back their side - and to stay involved
in the four-year-old conflict.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, newly-appointed Russian Foreign Minister
Yevgeny Primakov has announced plans to take "decisive steps" to end
the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The biggest stumbling block to any comprehensive security
arrangement among the CIS countries is Ukraine. Ukrainian President
Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin are meeting today
in Moscow ahead of the CIS conference. The main point of disagreement
remains the division and basing of the Black Sea Fleet. The fleet
dispute has delayed the signing of a Russia-Ukraine treaty. And Kiev
remains opposed to many of the security-related proposals put forward
by the CIS. After Russia, Ukraine is by far the largest and most
important member of the CIS. That means continued disagreement
between Moscow and Kiev would take much of the substance out of any
new treaties reached between Russia and the other CIS countries.
Nevertheless, Moscow is trying its best to bolster the CIS - though
it remains distracted by the Chechen conflict and by relations with
countries outside the so-called "near abroad." Another document
scheduled to be signed at Friday's summit is a customs agreement that
will add Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the existing
Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan free-trade zone. As Roger Kangas, an
analyst at the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute observed:
"The CIS now is starting to look less like the training wheels on a
bicycle and more like a permanent entity." The thing to watch will be
whether CIS leaders, amid the flurry of declarations, will manage to
create permanent institutional structures to regulate relations and
implement agreements among member countries.
Yeltsin has often spoken of the need to strengthen CIS institutions.
And Foreign Minister Primakov has said several times his main
priority as Russia's new foreign minister will be to focus on
Moscow's relationship with the CIS. After Friday, it will become
apparent whether they really mean it this time. And if they do, it
also remains to be seen whether that focus will have any practical