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Russia seeks to rescue image at CIS Summit

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 consequences.