THE leaders of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics agreed at a summit this week to create a common market and take other steps to integrate the region.
The Central Asian gathering is yet another sign of the weakening of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation which groups 11 of the 15 former Soviet republics.
"All of them support the [commonwealth]," the Novosti television news said after the meeting, "but in the event of its collapse, a new association of Central Asia is already being shaped in the region."
Participants adopted a new term - the United States of Central Asia - to refer to themselves. The group includes the Muslim-populated states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The summit was held Jan. 3-4 in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev told a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting that the leaders had taken "appropriate steps" to create a common market with common taxation, customs, price, investment, and trade policies, according to the Interfax news agency. An inter-republic coordinating council was established to coordinate joint measures to deal with the economic crisis that plagues all the former Soviet states.
The five leaders decided to set up an international fund to deal with their common ecological crisis - the shrinking and poisoned Aral Sea. The water basin formed by the sea and the rivers that feed into it incorporates all of the Central Asian nations.
The summit also agreed to create a regional information network, including a television system based in Tashkent and a regional newspaper. The leaders will meet on a regular basis, next in April in Turkmenistan.
But the Central Asian leaders are also well aware that they remain highly dependent, economically and politically, on fellow members of the commonwealth, particularly Russia.
Mr. Nazarbayev, whose republic includes a large Russian-speaking minority, warned the nations against locking themselves into the boundaries of the region and called for greater cooperation with Russia, according to Interfax.
The five Central Asian countries called for preservation of the Russian ruble as a common currency. But they indicated their growing frustration with what they see as Russian insistence on unilateral control over monetary policies. Nazarbayev reiterated his proposal to form a banking union, in which each each member would have a single vote on a controlling panel, to control monetary policies. The Russian Central Bank has rejected this idea, to retain its sole authority over the ruble.
During the year since the formation of the commonwealth, the Central Asian states have been among its supportive members. This backing reflects both their economic and military dependence on Russia, as well their relative political conservatism. In countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, the old communist leadership remains in power, recast as nationalists.
The political conservatism of these states is reflected in recent polling data from the Moscow-based Center for International Sociological and Marketing Research. The late December poll got responses, by questionnaire, from 3,400 people in 12 former Soviet republics (excluding the three Baltic states). While only 14 percent of Russians positively answered a question on whether they support their government, Central Asian regimes got very strong backing: 74 percent in Turkmenistan, 77 percent in Kyrgyzsta n, 85 percent in Kazakhstan, and 86 percent in Uzbekistan.
The one exception is Tajikistan which has been torn by civil war. The former communist forces ousted a coalition of Islamic and secular groups from power last month.
The Tajik civil war has unsettled the neighboring states, particularly the communist-led regime in Uzbekistan, which fears the growing role of Islamic political groups. A large Tajik minority lives in Uzbekistan, and a significant Uzbek population can be found in Tajikistan.
The Uzbek government has been particularly worried about refugee flows from the Tajik fighting. The Central Asian summit, which was attended by the new anti-Islamic Tajik government, pledged to provide humanitarian aid to the strife-torn country.
The Central Asians still look to Russian military forces to provide security against such threats. Tajik refugees have also crossed the border into Afghanistan, which is becoming a staging area for Islamic militias ousted by their foes. Russian troops continue to man that border, clashing regularly with Islamic forces, while a Russian division is patrolling the streets of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
This view of Russia is confirmed in the polling data. Asked whether Russia should play the leading role in relations among the former Soviet republics, a majority of Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Uzbek citizens replied favorably, a viewpoint shared by inhabitants of no other republic outside Russia. Among Central Asians, the view of Russia is strongly negative in Tajikistan, where both sides in the civil war have accused the Russians of helping their foes, and in Turkmenistan, whose oil and gas wealth has encourag ed a greater feeling of independence.