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East: Change In CIS Customs Union

In Kazakhstan's capital of Astana today, leaders of the five nations making up the CIS Customs Union formally changed the name of their group to the Eurasian Economic Community. A major aim of the exercise seems to be to create a weightier economic bloc more acceptable to international trade organizations. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that, apart from giving more power to Russia within the community, the change is in name only.

Prague, 10 Oct 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The CIS Customs Union changed its name today. The presidents of the group's five member nations -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus -- signed documents in the Kazakh capital Astana that turned their four-year-old union into the more imposing-sounding Eurasian Economic Community.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called the change "a major event."

"We have created a new international organization, the Eurasian Economic Community, and ratified a document on its creation. I consider this a major event."

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka compared the new organization to the 15-nation European Union.

"It's possibly something that looks similar to the European Union, which has functioned for a long time with all the same consequences."

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to boost the new grouping as qualitatively different from its predecessor.

"We are talking here about a qualitatively new instrument for decision-making, and we very much hope that the quality of these decisions will make the process viable."

The members of the Eurasian Economic Community pledged to form a common foreign-trade border, create a unified foreign economic policy and collectively regulate export-import tariffs and prices. Clearly, a major goal is to get all its member states into international trade organizations.

This would seem to be the task of Kyrgyzstan, the only nation in the community -- or in the CIS -- that is a member of the World Trade Organization, or WTO. The community's other members are undoubtedly hoping that Kyrgyzstan can use what influence it has to help all gain entry into the WTO.

The only important substantive change among the group's five members is that more weight has been given to Russia. In principle, the members of the CIS Customs Union had equal voices in the management of the group's affairs. But now, in making collective decisions, Russia will have four votes, Kazakhstan and Belarus two votes each, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will have one vote.

When the CIS Customs Union was established in March 1996, there was vague talk about deepening economic and humanitarian ties among the four founding countries. The same promises were repeated when Tajikistan joined last year. But even simple problems such as unifying railway tariffs have seemed beyond the custom union's capacity.

Geographically, the new group qualifies as a Eurasian Economic Community, since some members are in Asia and others are all or partly in Europe. But so far there seems to be little to distinguish the new group from the old one -- except its name.