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Russia: 'Customs Union' Meets Ahead of CIS Summit

Moscow, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Following growing complaints from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders that the body has proven of little value in the nearly six years of its existence - and, that Russia is to blame for its ineffectiveness, the Kremlin has apparently decided to re-direct the blame toward Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Ahead of a two-day CIS summit that will open later today in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, the Presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan held in Moscow a meeting that the Kremlin described as "difficult." The four countries signed in March 1996 a Customs Union aimed at accelerating economic integration, and making their bloc the powerhouse of the CIS.

Lukashenka had held the rotating chairmanship of the Customs Union, but the Kremlin has made clear its disappointment. The spokesman of Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky said before today's meeting that Moscow "had placed great hopes in the union of these four countries....but the union has failed to meet the expectations."

During the Kremlin meeting, Yeltsin thanked Lukashenka for the work done. However, at the end of the meeting the leaders announced that Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev was taking over as president of the four-state Customs Union council. According to Yeltsin, the four-state Customs Union, and the Russia-Belarus Union should become "the locomotives" for the solution of many issues to be considered also by the CIS as a whole.

Observers in Moscow say the change in the presidency indicates Nazarbayev's view of the CIS fits the Kremlin's agenda for the Chisinau meeting better than Lukashenka's declarations of fidelity to Moscow. Nazarbayev has been one of the main advocates of a strong CIS, which, in his view, could be at the basis for the establishment of a future Eurasian Union.

The Kazakh President - unlike Lukashenka - has never said his country is Russia's "younger brother." Nazarbayev has said the CIS should become an effective organization - not in order to go back under Russia's domination - but, rather to avoid that possibility by establishing clear rules for everybody, including Moscow.

Among the strongest critics of Moscow's role in the CIS, for opposite reasons, are Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze and Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma. Shevarnadze says Moscow, during the six years of the CIS, has used the Commonwealth to pursue its own agenda - as in Soviet times - ignoring Georgia's interest and the fact that the CIS is formed by independent countries.

Kuchma says Moscow has done nothing to promote the CIS' initial ambitious plans. Yesterday, one of Kuchma's top aides, Nikolai Doroshenko, said Kyiv "has never been part of the CIS, either as a fully-fledged or associated member, since it has not signed the Commonwealth Charter."

Those statements indicate that several CIS members are seriously considering the possibility of leaving the group, and that the Commonwealth, in its present form, may not have a future at all.

However, Russian observers say the CIS is unlikely to be abandoned. Russian officials have said they hope to show, in an "open dialogue" in Chisinau, "how to make the Commonwealth more effective."

Moldova's President Petru Lucinshi, who hosts the CIS summit, has also been critical, although in more moderate terms. He told Russian news agencies that many CIS leaders are frustrated by "the fundamental difference existing between expectations and the real development of the CIS." He said that "we have signed a lot of documents in the past, but the majority are not implemented."

According to Lucinshi, the main problem to be solved at the Chisinau summit is "how to guarantee freedom of movement of people, capital and trade within the CIS." He added that "trade has been the main motor of the European Union," and should become the guideline of future CIS development. Lucinshi said he is "sure that anyway the countries that are members of the CIS cannot do without one another...but they should realize that there are recognized methods to develop cooperation agreements."

After saying that he "doubts the summit will give new life to the CIS," Lucinshi said that in Chisinau, CIS leaders should decide the main strategic issues for the Commonwealth's development, and heads of government should work out "concrete measures" to implement those decisions in detail.