Kazakh leader moots closer ties with Russia

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KAZAKHSTAN'S President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, suggested yesterday that Russia and other former Soviet republics should bind themselves together in a close relationship involving a single parliament and currency.

Though he stopped well short of advocating the restoration of the Soviet Union, his proposals, if implemented, would considerably diminish the sovereignty of the new countries that arose after the collapse of the Soviet state.

Mr Nazarbayev made his remarks two days after elections and plebiscites in Ukraine revealed strong support among that republic's ethnic Russian minority for closer relations with Russia. However, Ukrainian nationalists are determined to minimise their links with Moscow and are likely to view Mr Nazarbayev's proposals as injecting new tension into the already dangerously strained politics of Ukraine.

Elsewhere, the Kazakh leader's ideas may receive a warmer welcome. In Belarus, a survey published this month showed that 55 per cent of respondents wanted the return of the Soviet state and that 63 per cent wanted the unification of Belarus with Russia.

Many Russian politicians also favour closer integration among the 12 members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the extremely loose association that groups all former Soviet republics except Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The head of the Russian parliament's upper house, Vladimir Shumeiko, said on Monday that CIS members must forge closer ties.

Russian diplomats now actively promote the view that the United Nations, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and other institutions should accept the CIS as an international organisation. Since Russia is much the most powerful CIS member, the likely effect of such a move would be to make Moscow the focal point of diplomacy for the CIS region, just as it was the centre of the old Soviet Union.

Russia's drive to turn the CIS into a tighter organisation parallels its efforts to reassert its influence over other former Soviet republics. Russia recently persuaded Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova to become full CIS members and is already acting as a 'peace- keeper' in the CIS area.

Mr Nazarbayev, who suggested the CIS might evolve into a 'Euro-Asian union' akin to the European Union, has always tended to favour close ties with Russia, not least because Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority concentrated in northern regions of his republic. His latest proposals may represent an attempt to conciliate pro-Moscow sentiment in these regions and avert demands for outright secession from Kazakhstan. Like the newly installed conservative leaders of Belarus, Mr Nazarbayev also believes his republic needs a close economic relationship with Russia.

The republic likely to mount the stiffest opposition to Russia's initiatives is Ukraine, which has long feared that Moscow is unreconciled to Ukrainian independence. But Russians make up one- fifth of Ukraine's population, and the Russian-speaking areas of Crimea and eastern Ukraine would almost certainly oppose Ukrainian attempts to block a more centralised CIS.