CIS reaches two-speed agreement

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The Independent Online
LEADERS of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, meeting in the Belarussian capital of Minsk, managed to stave off a split yesterday with a compromise deal which allowed the most enthusiastic community members to sign a founding charter while giving more hesitant republics time to think about the extent to which they want to commit themselves to integration.

Russia's Boris Yeltsin, who had gone into the summit predicting that 1993 would be a year of closer inter-republic co-operation, came out smiling after several hours of gruelling negotiations and told reporters: 'I think that by joint mental effort we found a decision that suits everybody and does not create problems within the national interests of individual states.'

Seven states - Russia, Belarus, Armenia and four Central Asian republics - signed the founding charter, while Ukraine, Moldova and Turkmenistan endorsed a more generally worded document which will allow them to stay on in the CIS while they consider their long-term positions. The old Soviet Union consisted of 15 republics, but the three Baltic states and Georgia opted out of the CIS, and these days Azerbaijan only sends observers to its meetings.

The Commonwealth, trying to unite former Soviet colonies with very different cultures and living standards, has been shaky since it was founded in December 1991, and lately has looked as if it was about to collapse altogether. But the Belarussian leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, said he could 'categorically disappoint' the prophets of doom who had predicted disintegration. The meeting had been 'unanimous and efficient as never before', he declared.

The summit did produce an agreement on the establishment of an inter- state bank, but concerning other areas Mr Shushkevich's assessment seemed overly rosy. In particular, there was a lack of information on the outcome of a row over who should control strategic nuclear weapons. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which inherited missiles from the Soviet Union along with Russia, have all agreed to leave Russia as the only CIS nuclear power in future. But Kiev and Alma Ata in particular have been annoyed by a demand from Moscow that they hand over control of the arms, currently controlled by the joint CIS command, immediately.

Of all the former Soviet republics, Ukraine is perhaps most wary of possible imperialism from Moscow, and therefore ambivalent about its future in the Commonwealth. Before the Minsk meeting Ukraine's President, Leonid Kravchuk, compared his republic's position in the CIS with that of Denmark in the European Community.

One possible scenario is that the CIS will become a two-tier organisation with a core of states such as Russia and its friend - at least on economic questions - Kazakhstan, co-operating closely, and an outer circle of associate members probably including Ukraine.

TALLINN - Russian troops are withdrawing from the Baltic republics despite a moratorium declared by Mr Yeltsin, and could be gone by the end of the year, AP reports. All but 50,000 of the 150,000 in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at the start of 1992 have quietly withdrawn.