Moscow seeks 'Soviet' role

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - President Boris Yeltsin, in remarks likely to divide the Commonwealth of Independent States, said yesterday that Russia should be granted special powers on the territory of the former Soviet Union to stop ethnic conflicts.

'The world community is increasingly coming to understand Russia's special responsibility in this difficult task,' he told the influential centre-right Civic Union grouping.

'I think the moment has come when responsible international organisations, including the United Nations, should grant Russia special powers as a guarantor of peace and stability in the region of the former Union,' Mr Yeltsin said. 'Russia has a heartfelt interest in stopping all armed conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union.'

Mr Yeltsin did not specify what kind of powers he wanted, referring to the idea in only two phrases of a speech. But his clear reference to the 'region of the former Soviet Union' suggested a role in some countries that would by no means warm to Russian intervention. Ukraine, for instance, would reject any suggestion of Kremlin diplomatic, let alone direct political or military powers on its territory.

But Russia has much to lose from any spread of instability in the former Soviet Union. Its borders with the former republics are largely open and their economies closely linked. Most of the former Soviet armed forces are under Russian jurisdiction and are located in all former Soviet republics. In some places, such as Tajikistan in Central Asia, they serve as a peace-keeping force to curb bloody ethnic and clan conflicts.

Russian forces in the Transcaucasus, avowedly neutral, have come under fire from rival armed groups. Georgia's government recently attacked Moscow's behaviour as aggressive.

Mr Yeltsin also said Russia was ready to set up a grouping more integrated than the Commonwealth with those ready to join it. 'Russia is consistent in favouring integration within the Commonwealth. We are ready for confederative relations of an open type in some aspects with the states which agree to that,' he said. 'I am sure their number will gradually grow.'

Both proposals were certain to anger Ukraine and some other members of the Commonwealth that are wary of Russian dominance. But they could find a welcome in more dependent neighbours such as Kazakhstan.