Washington, 20 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - As it enters the sixth year of its existence, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) faces an increasingly uncertain future, one likely to be marked by ever less agreement among the 12 former Soviet republics who are its members and by an ever greater willingness on the part of each of them to go its own way.
Moscow attempted to put the best face on things: Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, for example, praised the meeting as "a big step" toward integration. But a very different trend was in evidence at the latest CIS summit in Moscow on Friday.
And it suggests that the institution that was created to deal with the collapse of the Soviet Union will have to transform itself or become increasingly irrelevant to the governments and peoples both of that region and of the broader world.
Like previous gatherings of this group, Friday's CIS summit highlighted three things: the absence of agreement among member countries about what to do; the unwillingness of many of the member states to observe even the accords they have signed; and the increasing tendency of the CIS members to ignore it as they pursue their national interests.
First, there was much less unity than the Russian hosts and Russian media claimed. Aman Tuleyev, Russia's minister for CIS affairs, claimed that a majority of the member countries had agreed on a new economic integration plan.
But while Tuleyev said that "the most important thing" was that Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan had agreed with Moscow's proposal, he had to acknowledge that four countries -- Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- remained opposed.
Second, even those states that may have agreed this time are unlikely to live up to their commitments, at least if past experience is any guide.
Oleg Panfilov, an editor of the Russian-language journal "Tsentral'naya Aziya," put it clearly. "Most of the agreements that have been signed among the CIS heads of state over the past five years," he said, "are ineffective or have been forgotten."
And even Prime Minister Chernomyrdin admitted that "we are not fully satisfied with the results" of the CIS so far.
And third, the meeting highlighted the fact that national interests are playing an ever more important role in defining the actions of CIS member countries. That is true in a double sense.
On the one hand, some CIS members agreed with the latest integration plan presumably because they thought they would benefit or because of Russian pressure; others did not apparently because they believed they would do better if they did not agree.
Such a pattern of partial agreement does not strengthen the organization as Chernomyrdin and Tuleyev claimed but rather highlights its weakness. The formation of subgroups within the organization does not strengthen it, but rather leads those who are not part of these groups to look suspiciously on those who are.
And on the other hand, as each country defines its own interests more precisely, it increasingly sees its links with countries outside the CIS as being much more important than its ties to CIS countries.
Thus, it is no surprise that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, two oil and gas rich states who hope to sell their output on the international market, were among those opposing the latest Russian drive for economic integration.
For all these reasons, the future of the CIS is anything but bright. And one Russian official may have unintentionally given what will be the obituary line for that body in the future.
Speaking to the press on Friday, Russian foreign trade minister Oleg Davydov said that the CIS has become "neither a free-trade zone nor a regime of most-favoured nations but rather a mixed, fuzzy system of economic ties created under political pressure."
As the governments and peoples of the CIS and those of other countries understand that fact, the institution of the Commonwealth of Independent States will become ever less viable for the future.