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Belarus: CIS Summit Focusing On Sub-Groups

Leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States are due to open a two-day summit later today in Minsk. No major agreements covering the 12-nation grouping are expected. Our correspondent reports from the Belarusian capital that the most important talks will take place on the sidelines, within smaller regional sub-groups, as Russian President Vladimir Putin meets the three Caucasus presidents and leaders from Central Asia.

Minsk, 31 May 2001 (RFE/RL) - For those who had doubts about the effectiveness and importance of the CIS as an organization, the Belarusian authorities indirectly confirmed their skepticism in planning the Minsk summit.

The 12-nation group's prime ministers and foreign ministers meet today for largely ceremonial talks at the imposing CIS headquarters in downtown Minsk. But the real negotiations will take place outside the CIS forum, at the Belarusian president's official residence a few kilometers away.

There, Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev on the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. The three heads of state will be joined later in the evening by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, when the discussion is expected to shift to the war in Chechnya.

Following those meetings, the presidents of the so-called Eurasian Community -- a grouping which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus -- will discuss economic cooperation.

True to their reputation for running a hermetic state, the Belarusian authorities have invited scores of journalists to attend press conferences with the CIS prime ministers and foreign ministers. But the presidential meetings -- where important decisions might actually be made -- will take place behind closed doors, where only handpicked state media representatives will be allowed.

Speaking to our correspondent last week, Germany-based regional expert Rainer Lindner said the CIS has existed as an empty shell practically since its inception in 1991. While the superstructure remains, the vacuum is being gradually filled by smaller sub-groups of countries that share genuine common security or economic interests.

"I think we will face the creation of bilateral or trilateral organizations based on economic terms, based on political deals. But the CIS as a structure for the 10 or 11 member states, at the moment, will not be an instrument which is very active in national politics, and also in domestic policies in these countries."

On the streets of Minsk, few people seem to care about the summit. The only sign of upcoming diplomatic activity is increased police patrols and crews sent out to spruce up the greenery on the approach road from the airport. Several times a day, traffic is halted to make way for the speeding motorcade of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But that is a daily occurrence in Minsk -- summit or no summit.

Political activist Pavel Sevyarynets, one of the leaders of the Youth Front opposition organization, told RFE/RL he will use the meeting as a backdrop for another one of his group's trademark humorous demonstrations. The summit's opening coincides with the world's annual anti-tobacco day.

"Before the opening of the CIS summit, the Youth Front will conduct a leaflet-distribution campaign. We will put up posters and several dozen people will stage a 'happening.' Our theme will be the upcoming presidential elections and we will go out onto the streets of downtown Minsk to show that on the global anti-smoking day we are fighting a greater evil: the dictatorial regime in Belarus -- the regime of Lukashenka. And we will give him a light."

With the police presence in Minsk increasing by the hour in the run-up to the summit, it is likely to be a short-lived demonstration.