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Russia: CIS Summit Approves No Reforms, Only Personnel Changes

Moscow, 29 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), meeting today in Moscow, were expected to focus on measures to build economic and political cooperation among the 12 former Soviet republics that form the loose alliance, breathing new life into the partnership. However, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev said after the meeting that "the presidents of the CIS countries don't seem ready to reform the Commonwealth for the time being. We focused mainly on personnel decisions." Nazarbaev told the Interfax news agency that he had outlined his proposals for a reform of the CIS, but that other presidents had decided to avoid discussing the topic.

The CIS has been largely ineffective since its creation, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, serving mostly as a talking shop.

The CIS leaders decided to confirm Russia's President Boris Yeltsin as Chairman of the Council of Heads of State of the Commonwealth, while Uzbek Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov was appointed Chairman of the Council of Heads of Government.

But observers say that the main outcome of today's Summit was the appointment of Russia's former Security Council Deputy Secretary and influential businessman Boris Berezovsky as new CIS Executive Secretary to replace Belarus' Ivan Korotchenya, who held the job since 1991.

Berezovsky's appointment was unanimously approved by all heads of states. According to reports, the CIS leaders said they chose Berezovsky because of his business ability, and his "considerable diplomatic and organizational abilities." Yeltsin said Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma had proposed the businessman for the post and that the other leaders had asked him to approve the appointment. Yeltsin said that he agreed, "because Berezovsky is a lively person. We have traveled part of the way together. I fired him from one job, but that does not bother me."

Yeltsin added that "for many, also for journalists, Berezovsky's appointment will come as a surprise. I will work with him for the well being of the CIS."

Some Russian observers interpreted Yeltsin's consent to Berezovsky's new appointment as an indirect confirmation of recent rumors that the tycoon and self-styled Kremlin insider had fallen out with Yeltsin.

Sergei Markov, at the Moscow Center for Political Studies, told RFE/RL that Yeltsin's words and the appointment of the tycoon are a "symbolic gesture on Yeltsin's side. This means political exile from Russia's policy for Berezovsky," said Markov.

During the political crisis that preceded parliamentary approval of new Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, some Moscow dailies reported that Yeltsin has warned Berezovsky that he would "drive him out of the country," if the tycoon did not stop trying to influence the formation of the new government behind the scenes.

According to most observers, Berezovsky, a key financial backer of Yeltsin's re-election campaign in 1996, had tried to have acting Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Rybkin nominated as Prime Minister, instead of Kiriyenko. Berezovsky and Rybkin became close when they worked together leading Russia's Security Council from November 1996 to November 1997.

Rybkin, who now serves as acting Deputy Prime Minister in charge of relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, said two weeks ago, as he was visiting CIS capitals for consultations before today's Summit, that "representatives of the financial, industrial and banking sector should work in CIS executives structures."

Most observers said at the time that Rybkin was probably hinting that Berezovsky should soon be given an official position again. Berezovsky himself said that private capital "is the only cementing force" suitable to consolidate the difficult relation among CIS members states.

Critics, questioning why the billionaire tycoon seemed to want to work in bureaucratic institutions, said Berezovsky wanted to use an official position to maintain his fading links to the Kremlin, in order to advance his business interests. Most observers say that Berezovsky, who has interests ranging from oil to media, has relied mainly on his close contacts with Yeltsin and some of his closest Kremlin advisors, including Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, to build up his fortune and support his political influence.

Andrei Piontkovsky, of the Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that Yeltsin probably intended to distance himself from Berezovsky, but in doing so, he's "giving him a golden parachute with the new appointment."

Berezovsky told Interfax after his appointment today that "the time has come for decisive measures aimed at the creation of a real Commonwealth of Independent States." He said the CIS Executive Secretariat will remain in Minsk, but did not say whether he will move to the capital of Belarus.

Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, commenting on the appointment, told RFE/RL that "Minsk is not a place for exile." He added that "on the contrary, this appointment gives a new push to Berezovsky's positions."

Yeltsin today had called on all other leaders to present proposals on how to breath new life into the alliance. He said that "the people of the CIS expect, not just statements that the Commonwealth will continue to exist, but, first and foremost, actions and concrete practical steps."

Berezovsky's work will be to implement Yeltsin's words and his first exam will be a CIS forum to be held in Moscow before the end of July. However, Russian commentators today said that today's Moscow meeting decided simply "to avoid the CIS dying quietly."