Leaders of former Soviet republics are looking inward to solve issues of economic and political survival

THOUGH the success of market reforms in the Commonwealth of Independent States will depend greatly on the help of the outside world, commonwealth leaders are looking inward.

As leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations met July 6 in Munich to discuss ways to foster economic development in the commonwealth, the commonwealth heads of state held a summit in Moscow to grapple with the more fundamental question of survival.

Commonwealth leaders authorized Russian President Boris Yeltsin to seek a deferral on principal and interest repayments of the former Soviet Union's $74 billion foreign debt. But the results of the Moscow summit indicate the 11 commonwealth nations now feel that survival depends as much on their ability to better define their own relationship as on outside assistance.

Since it replaced the Soviet Union in December, the commonwealth has been battered by ethnic conflicts and deteriorating economic ties among the former Soviet republics, while facing a crushing foreign debt. Unified action is needed to combat these problems, but the desire of some member states to assert their newly won sovereignty has persistently blocked efforts to coordinate economic activity and check rising ethnic tensions.

This economic and political crisis, seemingly growing gloomier by the day, appears to have caused some commonwealth members to reconsider their go-it-alone attitudes. Some leaders, at a news conference following the Moscow summit, stressed that an era of commonwealth cooperation has begun.

"The commonwealth not only lives, but it is beginning to effectively function," Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev, who chaired the summit, said at a news conference.

Other leaders played up an agreement to establish an economic court to settle disputes among republics - a move designed to help avert industrial collapse. And they also pledged to form a peacekeeping force that would help defuse ethnic conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and the Azeri enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

On July 7, the Moldovan parliament formally requested commonwealth and Romanian peacekeepers to help resolve a dispute over the region of the republic inhabited mainly by Slavs along the Dniester river.

But despite this new spirit of cooperation, the leaders at the summit were unable to settle several longstanding disputes, such as control of strategic nuclear weapons and coordinated air defenses. And those agreements that were reached were lacking in detail. As a result, more than a few people here remain skeptical about the commonwealth's future.

Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, whose country is battling Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, called the summit agreements "empty words," citing the lack of a mechanism to resolve inter-ethnic disputes.

Meanwhile, the local news media, which has already seen its share of false starts, is guarded in its optimism.

"Commonwealth leaders are venturing toward a cautious, yet ever more outspoken rapprochement," one television commentator said. Some remain convinced that commonwealth cannot be salvaged, saying the economic problems and ethnic wars have festered too long.

"Apparently it will be possible to prolong the agony for another couple of months," wrote political analyst Sergei Parkhomenko in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper July 7. "But the chronicle of the past weeks definitely testifies to the fact that it's impossible to rescue the [commonwealth]."

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