Former Soviet States Weigh Stronger Ties Amid Economic Woes

Leaders gather in Moscow, wary of Russia's intentions

THREE years after it was launched, the organization that groups former Soviet republics finds itself toothless and rudderless, with concerns over Russia's real intentions in its former empire.

Beset by smaller members' fears of Russian domination, and by Russian reservations about carrying the economic burden of closer integration, the commonwealth is torn between conflicting visions of its future. As presidents of the Commonwealth of Independent States members meet here for the summit today, few signs show they are close to defining a role for their group.

``We have not yet found the right mechanisms for the CIS to function as we had envisaged,'' laments Ramiz Rizaev, Azerbaijani ambassador to Moscow.

The 12-member commonwealth, which groups all the former Soviet republics except the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, was conceived as an instrument of civilized divorce when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

That breakup complete, and the Soviet inheritance divided up, the organization seems at a loss over what to do next.

Increasingly, and especially in Russia, there is talk of the need for greater reintegration among the former Soviet republics - a feeling that the divorce, though desirable and inevitable, was perhaps overly hasty.

``We are one community of peoples,'' argues Leonid Drachevsky, head of the commonwealth desk at the Russian Foreign Ministry. ``We have lived in this territory not just for 70 years [since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution] but for centuries, and our penetration into each others' languages, economies, and cultures is much deeper than it might seem at first sight.''

``It is clear that centripetal forces in the post-Soviet space are on the rise and sooner or later, in this or that form, they will shape a commonwealth of countries, firmly united by joint economic and political interests,'' wrote Vladimir Pokrovsky, a deputy foreign minister, in yesterday's edition of the official Rossiiskiye Vesti newspaper.

Marriage of necessity

Even Mr. Rizaev, whose country, Azerbaijan, resisted joining the commonwealth until last year for fear of Russian domination, acknowledges the need for closer economic ties among states that once knew no borders.

Factories in one country relying on parts from a factory in another country under the planned Soviet economy were suddenly left in the lurch, he points out, and output plummeted everywhere in the former Soviet Union. A free-trade zone with customs and payments unions clearly makes economic sense, he agrees.

At the same time, Mr. Drachevsky says, ``history has shown that nobody in world markets needs our products - even those that are competitive have difficulties,'' so the natural market for any former Soviet republic is another former Soviet republic, where people are accustomed to poor quality.

With closer economic union in mind, the heads of state meeting in Moscow today will be studying a proposal for a supra-national Interstate Economic Committee, designed to guide and oversee the process of economic integration.

Already, though, there are problems over members' relative strength on such a body, with Ukraine demanding changes to the proposed system that gives Russia 50 percent of the votes, and almost unassailable power to force through anything it likes.

That dispute illustrates how the post-Soviet mood bedevils efforts toward integration. ``The smaller countries' feelings of sovereignty and national identity are still very much to the fore,'' says one Western diplomat. ``There is still this mistrust of big brother, who might be trying again to overshadow everything.''

Reluctant saviors

At the same time, within Russia, there are strong currents of opinion even at senior governmental levels urging Moscow to shrug off the economic burden that the poorer peripheral and still unreformed states represent, and to go it alone economically.

``The Russians are trying to keep their political influence, without offering too much,'' the Western diplomat says. ``I rather doubt that they are prepared to put much money into the other economies to get them going.''

Moscow's drive for political influence, of course, alarms its neighbors. ``Of course Russia has its own interests,'' Rizaev says. ``And of course it is the most powerful state in the region. But what we want is partnership, not diktat.''

Russia's intentions toward its neighbors - especially those republics wracked by ethnic conflict where Russian troops have been sent as peacekeepers such as Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikstan - are also worrying some Western observers, but their alarm infuriates Russian diplomats.

``When our peacekeeping efforts are interpreted as neo-imperialist ambitions it is not only unjust, it is dangerous for the whole world,'' fumes one official here.

``If these conflicts are not localized and quenched they will spread, and then Bosnia will look like a Sunday school picnic,'' the official adds.

Such concerns enjoy a measure of understanding in Europe. ``Russia is clearly the only power in the region with the resources and the will to ensure some sort of stabilization that could be positive for Europe too,'' one European diplomat says.

``The question is, though, how will they do this? In the old Soviet way, or in a more contemporary way, on the basis of common European standards?''

As they step tentatively down the road toward restoring with Moscow, that question looms large for all of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's commonwealth partners.

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