LESS than a month after its formation, it is already reasonable to question whether the Commonwealth of Independent States formed on the rubble of the Soviet Union will survive.
The stormy eight-hour session of the leaders of the 11 commonwealth member states on Dec. 30 in Minsk, Byelorussia, yielded little agreement on the issues that really matter - common defense and economic policies. At most the heads of the former Soviet republics managed to postpone decisions, agreeing for example to try again to decide the future of the Soviet armed forces in two months.
But nothing captures the impotence of this new structure more starkly than its failure to take even the slightest step to halt a bloody and widening war between two of its members - Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The people of the two neighboring Caucuses states are already in combat, centering on the Azeri attempt to assert its control over the Armenian-populated autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As soon as Soviet Interior Ministry forces withdrew last week, Azeri troops escalated their attack, pouring hundreds of rocket and artillery rounds a day onto the regional capital of Stepanakert.
While the leaders were sitting around their table in Minsk, 18 Azeri battalions of 300 men each equipped with tanks and armored personnel carriers, were entering Nagorno-Karabakh near the city of Agadan, according to the independent Nega news agency. Armenian guerrillas with light automatic weapons and few pieces of heavy weaponry fought back fiercely in battles around the capital city.
"The Azeris will launch an offensive and there will be the total liquidation of the Armenian population," predicts Boris Gorev, a photographer for Literaturnaya Gazeta, just back from the battle zone. "The Azeris have more forces; they have a better system of supplies. They can ship in troops by rail and by air. Karabakh is an encircled island inside Azeri territory. Armenia can supply their forces only by two helicopters.... It is a nightmare." Armenia calls for help
The Bolsheviks incorporated mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan in 1923, though it lies mere miles from Armenia. The most recent effort to negotiate a solution to the dispute, begun by Russia and Kazakhstan last October, has gone nowhere. The region's elected leadership issued an urgent appeal Dec. 30 for the commonwealth and the international community to stop the Azeri offensive.
The subject was on the agenda at the Minsk meeting, which both Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Azeri President Ayaz Mutalibov attended. However, the discussion was postponed on the insistence of the Azeris, according to the Interfax news agency. Azerbaijan, along with Moldavia and the Ukraine, were also reportedly the major opponents of a proposed defense structure that would have placed most Soviet Army ground forces under a continued common command. (They did reaffirm a single command of nuc lear forces.) National sovereignty
The Azeri president and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk have already declared themselves commanders in chief of all the armed forces based on their territories. For the Ukraine this is an issue of national sovereignty and an expression of its rivalry with Russia, the most powerful of the commonwealth members. But for Azerbaijan, it is clearly intended to give them a free hand in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"By forming its own army, Azerbaijan tries to solve the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh by liquidation and forced deportation of the Armenian population," stated a letter from 18 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences addressed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the commonwealth leadership.
"The policy of genocide conducted by one of the members of the commonwealth puts into question the prestige of this commonwealth and the confidence of the world public in it," they said, according to Nega.
The apparent abdication of shared responsibility is symptomatic of relations among members of the new commonwealth. They had agreed to form common economic policies, particularly when it comes to reforming the state-run Soviet economy into a market system and to maintaining a common currency and monetary system. But in practice, as the Minsk meeting demonstrated, each state is taking care of its own.
The Russians have decided that their only hope lies in rapid reform, and they are not ready to allow the more cautious approach of the Ukraine and others to slow them down.
Price liberalization begins as scheduled on Jan. 2, and with it the Russian government announced new decrees to escalate the pace of privatization of farm land, of retail shops and other services, and of industry.
"We move to the market by a somewhat different path," Mr. Kravchuk told reporters at the close of the Minsk meeting. Complaining that Russia has reneged on a promise to provide enough cash from the Russian-controlled printing presses to handle the effect of freeing prices and raising wages, the Ukrainians will try to close off their market by issuing part of salaries in the form of coupons. State stores will sell goods only for such coupons in an effort to stop non-Ukrainians from buying foodstuffs that are cheaper and more available there. Byelorussia is planning a similar approach. Only one common bond
The only thing seemingly holding the commonwealth together is its members' inability to rid themselves of the legacy of the Soviet Union. "Russia must not be our big brother," a Kazakh spokesman said, "but there is no way around a single economy."