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Belarus: Regional Talks Take Center Stage At Lackluster CIS Summit

A two-day summit bringing together the presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers of the 12-member Commonwealth of Independent States opened in Minsk yesterday. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from the Belarusian capital.

Minsk, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Minsk yesterday, five member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which up to now have been loosely grouped in a customs union, formally ratified the creation of a single economic group, henceforth to be known as the Eurasian Economic Community.

The Eurasian Economic Community comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who claimed credit for the original concept, was named as the chairman of the organization. He said the new group was necessary because the CIS Customs Union had not lived up to expectations:

"The Customs Union, which has existed since 1996, has changed into the Eurasian Economic Community. The effectiveness [of the customs union] was low, as you remember. Commitments were not fulfilled. Therefore, we decided to give it a new impulse. And my suggestion about a Eurasian Economic Community, which I first proposed in 1994 at Moscow State University, is beginning to take shape."

The creation of the Eurasian Economic Community is likely to be the highlight of an otherwise lackluster CIS summit in Minsk. Foreign ministers of the organization's 12 member states set a new record for efficiency yesterday when they approved a 23-point agenda after meeting for only a few of hours.

Among the chief points was the decision to extend for another six months the mandate of Russian-led peacekeepers on the demarcation line between Georgia and its breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced the move:

"Georgia's position was that the presence of these forces is essential for the maintaining of peace in this region. So no other options were discussed. Everyone supported the idea."

Most of the other points were less significant. And the speed with which the agenda was approved is a further indication that the CIS, nominally headquartered in Minsk, has not developed into a forum for substantive debate. All decisions had clearly been pre-approved in the capitals of the respective member states before the summit.

The truly important questions of regional security and cooperation were taken up on the sidelines, within smaller regional sub-groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had meetings with the Caucasus presidents in two separate sessions. Putin first held talks with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev on the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. The three heads of state were joined later in the evening by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The discussions took place behind closed doors at the residence of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, where access was barred to all but a few handpicked state media journalists.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported after the meeting that the leaders of the four countries discussed concerns over growing "terrorism and extremism" in the Caucasus region. In a joint statement, the four countries announced their intention to "strictly adhere to peaceful, fair, and lasting settlement of conflicts in the Caucasus, which is the most important priority for the governments of the region and should eliminate any obstacles on the path to their comprehensive partnership."

In remarks reported by ITAR-TASS, Putin welcomed the broadening of contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, saying they improved the chances of resolving the 13-year-old territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Russia, Putin said, "will take every possible step to resolve the conflict." He added: "This [issue] is more heart-wrenching for Russia than for all the other participants in the Minsk Group."

Putin was referring to the three-nation group -- whose co-chairmen are France and the United States as well as Russia -- mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor the Karabakh peace negotiations.

The only other excitement of the day came when unidentified persons threw a grenade early Wednesday (30 May) morning, prior to the summit's opening, into the courtyard of the Russian Embassy, damaging a tree. The perpetrators have not yet been uncovered, although Ivanov said Moscow expected them to be found and punished.

"We have expressed our regret that such an incident took place and we hope that the corresponding Belarusian authorities will take all the necessary measures to find the perpetrators and ensure that they receive appropriate punishment."

Despite the lack of any major news at the Minsk summit, the meeting has underlined one important development: Russia is on the comeback trail as leader of the former Soviet republics.

Putin acted as a mediator in all key discussions, while Ivanov served as the de facto CIS spokesman, announcing most of the group's common decisions to the media. Russia is a party to all of the key sub-groups within the CIS, and it is becoming increasingly clear that efforts by some CIS countries to form alternate groupings are running out of steam.

On his arrival in Minsk. Moldova's new pro-Russian Communist President Vladimir Voronin reiterated to RFE/RL his desire to see his country eventually join the Russia-Belarus union. If that indeed does occur, it will be bad news to the other four members of the GUUAM group -- comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, as well as Moldova -- which had hoped to pool their resources to act as a counterweight to Moscow's influence.

In Minsk, where Lukashenka's government has long aimed for close ties with Moscow, it appears that most other CIS members -- save for a few holdouts -- are singing the same tune.