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11/28/06

CIS: Energy, Relevance Top Agenda As Heads Of State Gather In Minsk

MINSK, November 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Heads of state from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are gathering today in the Belarusian capital Minsk for talks expected to focus on two uncomfortable issues -- energy and the future of the grouping itself.

The meeting comes just over a week before the post-Soviet regional grouping celebrates its 15th anniversary on December 8.

No Cause Celebre

But no celebrations are expected. It's more likely that talks will focus on whether the CIS is worth salvaging -- and if so, how.

Rising energy power Kazakhstan is leading the charge to reform the body.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Minsk reports that Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev said on November 27 that all international organizations currently find themselves undergoing reforms.

The CIS, he added, is "no exception."

"What we are in fact talking about is raising the potential of our common possession, the Commonwealth of Independent States, which has played a big role from the point of view of the preventing the so-called Yugoslavia scenario [in the former USSR] and from the point of view of the normalization, development, and strengthening of our intergovernmental ties," Tokaev said.

Kazakhstan's proposals, however, may not be to everyone's liking.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev says all energy-producing countries within the CIS should be given greater weight -- something that excludes a number of members and may antagonize Moscow as well.

Dissenters In The Group

Other CIS members have their own ideas about what to do with the ineffectual grouping.

Georgia, notably, has signaled it may withdraw from the body altogether. Georgian lawmakers have spent much of the past year examining whether such a move is feasible -- or prudent.

Georgia is far more invested in GUAM, the body linking it with other Russia detractors like Ukraine and Moldova. Azerbaijan, which has slightly warmer ties with Moscow, is also a member of that group.

But even CIS stalwarts like Russia loyalist Belarus are beginning to show signs of divided loyalty.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka today suggested the CIS was worth preserving, but needed work.

"It must be acknowledged that some of our goals have not been met," Lukashenka said. "This does not mean that they have lost their relevance. We should work more actively in deepening integration, developing economic cooperation, first and foremost, and collectively safeguarding the social rights and guarantees of CIS citizens."

Hedging Ally

Earlier, however, Lukashenka appeared ready to turn his back on the CIS, proposing to open talks with Ukrainian officials on establishing a Belarus-Ukraine relationship much like the long-dormant Russia-Belarus Union.

One of the reasons for the new proposal might have been the threat by Russia's Gazprom to drastically hike gas prices for its CIS neighbors.

Lukashenka might have hoped a union with Kyiv would allow the two countries to provide a united front in enforcing joint transit tariffs for Russia.

CIS heads are also expected to discuss security issues, terrorism, and illegal migration.

The CIS, formed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, currently groups all the former USSR republics except the Baltic states and Turkmenistan, which discontinued its permanent membership and is now an associate member.

Despite the weighty issues on the Minsk agenda, however, most eyes will be elsewhere -- the two-day NATO summit currently under way in Riga.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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