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CIS: The Future Looks Bleak For Commonwealth Of Independent States

Moscow, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, who had expressed deep concern with the fate of the Commonwealth of Independent Sates (CIS), emerged from meetings with leaders of four former Soviet republics in Moscow last week to say he hopes the talks will be a strong boost to sluggish relations within the organization, as a whole.

However, Moscow observers express skepticism that new Kremlin steps to increase integration will have the desired effect on all 12 CIS members.

Many CIS leaders have accused Russia of being too domineering. And, most observers say the CIS has failed to achieve deep economic and political cooperation, and question whether it has a future. At the CIS summit, in October, 1997, in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, most leaders strongly criticized Russia. A Moscow CIS summit, originally scheduled for this month, was postponed until March.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, who is in charge of relations with other CIS countries, said that a concerned Yeltsin has instructed government officials from several ministries and departments to draw up a survival plan to re-animate the CIS. The plan should be discussed at the March summit.

Yeltsin said, after last week's Kremlin meeting, that it should establish an example to other CIS members. Yeltsin held talks with Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, ahead of a session of the Supreme Council of the Russia-Belarus Union. Yeltsin and Lukashenka were later joined by the Presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Askar Akayev, for a session of the four-nation Customs Union. Yeltsin said this was a "serious discussion among serious leaders." He said he and the others "quickly came to agreements," and added that "this is what we should try to do with the entire CIS."

However, Russian media note that, even at the so-called mini-summit, the Presidents were unable to agree on all issues and failed to approve a long-debated customs treaty. The repeated failure to find an agreement on the issue will provide additional arguments to critics, who say the Customs Union is simply another ambitious attempt at closer integration that has remained only on paper. And, later Lukashenka contradicted Yeltsin's optimistic words, saying that the four Presidents had spent much of their time arguing. Lukashenka said that there had been "a lot of fighting" at the meeting. He added that the CIS is "experiencing a deep crisis, like never before."

Political observers go further and forecast that the CIS might become obsolete, and be dissolved as soon as members build stronger bilateral relations -- particularly economic ones -- among themselves and with other countries. The daily "Russky Telegraf" wrote last week that "the time of Russia's monopoly is over." The newspaper added that CIS countries, which are Russia's possible competitors in the energy sector, "are looking -- and some have already found -- independent exits to world markets." It concluded that "Russia is not in the position to stop this process."

Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma, in an interview with another Russian daily, "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," said the future of the CIS "depends above all on the Russian political elite understanding the new realities, and on its ability to relate to its 'smaller brothers' as equal partners." Some Moscow observers say that, in order to maintain its influence in the CIS, Russia must protect and support those countries essential to its energy markets - regardless of the consequences.

One such country is Belarus. Minsk has a Soviet-style economic policy and is internationally isolated politically, because of Lukashenka's crackdown on the opposition and media. However, the country is essential for the export of Russian natural gas to Western European markets, and Lukashenka is well aware of that. At his Moscow news conference last week, Lukashenka said "the politics of the West is to seal off Russia from China and India in the East, and Europe in the West. Belarus remains Russia's only open window to the world."