Tashkent Summit Opens With Key Absences

AN ambitious agenda faces the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States at their summit that begins today. But instead of concentrating on possible results, many participants on the eve of the meeting wondered about the viability of the commonwealth.

Leaders attending the two-day summit in the Uzbek city of Tashkent will attempt to agree on a number of political, military, and economic issues. In particular, commonwealth members will try to approve a collective security arrangement, and create a mechanism to coordinate economic activity in the event member states introduce separate currencies to replace the Soviet ruble. Both Ukraine and Belarus have announced plans to issue their own money as early as this summer.

The lofty goals of the summit are being met by low expectations among participants and political observers alike. Many expect the Tashkent gathering to be a rerun of previous unproductive commonwealth summits, which have been undermined by nationalist-inspired disputes and economic difficulties.

"You can maybe expect some sort of joint statement, but after that who knows. The last commonwealth meeting in Kiev [in March] showed that reaching agreements will be difficult," says Vladimir Shlyaposhnikov, the spokesman for Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, in a telephone interview.

President Kravchuk, along with presidents Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan and Mircea Snegur of Moldova, has already said he will not attend the meeting in Central Asia. The attendance of Tajikistan's Rakhmon Nabiyev and Azerbaijan's Yagub Mamedov was also in doubt because of unrest in their respective republics. Though all the republics will be sending delegations, the absence of the heads of state, especially Kravchuk, dimmed the summit's chances for success even before it started.

"The prospects for the commonwealth are rather weak," Kazahkstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in an interview published yesterday in the Trud newspaper. "Kazakhstan should be prepared for any change of events. But being aware of this, we remain a proponent of integration."

Officially, Kravchuk's aides said the Ukrainian president must remain in Kiev for a meeting with Finnish President Mauno Koivisto. Meanwhile, Mr. Akayev is visiting China, and Mr. Snegur is boycotting the meeting to protest what he calls Russia's support for separatists in the Trans-Dneistr region of Moldova.

According to Sergei Blagovolin, head of the Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow, the three leaders' decision to stay away from Tashkent reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the development of the commonwealth, which replaced the Soviet Union in December. "There are growing doubts it's a useful vehicle to solve problems," he says.

The commonwealth has been unable to stem the growing violence, especially in such southern regions as Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, and Tadjikistan. It also has not been able to check a potentially far more dangerous conflict between Ukraine and Russia over control of the Black Sea fleet and the Crimean Peninsula.

The need to ease the economic problems faced by the 11 member states also have gone unmet. Instead of integrating their economies, many states are erecting customs barriers and planning separate currencies.

As the problems mount, some leaders appear to be probing for alternatives.

"People are saying ... the political and economic situation is much worse than expected, and everyone is starting to look for separate solutions," Mr. Blagovolin says.

"It will be possible to preserve the commonwealth in name only," he adds. "The commonwealth is not feasible under the present circumstances."

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