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Russia: CIS Summit May Be Difficult

Moscow, 27 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Top leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are meeting in Moscow tomorrow to discuss economic integration and military as well as political issues.

Russian news agencies have said the summit is likely to focus on the ways to promote economic integration. Furthermore, the summit is expected to discuss measures to settle current conflicts, such as one in AzerbaijanUs troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region claimed by Armenia, another between Georgia and its separatist region of Abkhazia and the in Tajikistan.

After the summit, Yeltsin is expected to hold separate meetings with CIS leaders.

The summit is likely to be difficult for Russia. In the last few days some CIS leaders have criticized the way the organization operates.Specifically, Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev and Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze have opposed in separate pronouncements any moves toward further CIS integration.

Yesterday, Shevardnadze told the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" that integration processes among CIS countries, particularly the economic ones, should be voluntary and not imposed by any other country. Giving as an example the European Union, Shevardnadze said that any move toward integration should be "clearly beneficial for every single country concerned."

Two days ago, Azerbaijan's Aliyev and Kuchma had expressed similar views. The two agreed that their countries would take part in the Friday summit with the hope to have their say "about the past and the future of the CIS." They expressed doubts that any CIS country could be satisfied with the way the CIS now operates.

Even before, each of the three presidents was reported by the Russian media to have expressed preference for the CIS to operate as a community of equals and sovereign countries. Shevardnadze was quoted yesterday by Interfax as emphasizing that "without trust there is no integration."

All those comments are clearly directed at Russia. Russia has dominated the CIS since its creation in 1991. It has been the main proponent of multilateral economic and military ties within the organization. And it has made every effort to put these processes under Moscow's control.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin has served as CIS chairman from the CIS inception and is likely to be re-elected by the tomorrowUs summit. Russia has used CIS to develop a series of bilateral defense treaties with other members of the organization. All have been designed to rebuild the military cooperation reminiscent of the Soviet times. Russian military officials have called on several occasions for the creation of a formal CIS military alliance capable of opposing NATO.

But in recent years several CIS states have taken steps to downgrade military ties with Russia. Some have instead become actively involved in the NATO-sponsored "Partnership-for-Peace" program. And Ukraine has even recently hinted that it may eventually want to join NATO.

Russian-Ukrainian relations have long been strained because of the protracted dispute over the fate of the Black Sea Fleet. They have recently further soured over Kyiv's decision to stage, together with NATO forces, naval exercises in the Black Sea this Summer.

Ukraine's Defense Minister Aleksander Kuzmuk was expected to discuss these issues with his Russian counterpart Igor Rodionov in Moscow yesterday, at the sidelines of a meeting of the CIS Defense Council. Ukraine is attending the meeting as an observer.