CHISINAU (Reuters)–Leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States began a summit on Thursday amid apparent discord about the future of the loose regional grouping.
All 12 CIS presidents except Turkmen’stan’s Saparmurat Niyazov–who is recovering from heart surgery–met in Moldova’s Palace of the Republic–Russian news agencies said. They were to be joined by their delegations later.
The leaders were expected to discuss coordinating the general direction of reforms in their countries and plans to set up a common agricultural market–cooperation in the fight against cross-border crime and illegal migration.
The CIS was formed in late 1991 to ensure a civilized divorce between former Soviet republics when the communist superpower collapsed. Its members have frequently been at odds and–as at most previous summits–the gathering in Moldova’s capital Chisinau will have to debate its future role.
In a bad omen–a Moldovan government source said a planned meeting between Moldova and Dnestr region had not taken place because Dnestr’s leader had not turned up.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had been due to mediate. Moldovan officials hoped the talks might be rescheduled for later on Thursday.
"If no document is signed on Dnestr–it will be a failure for Russian foreign policy–since it was Russia which agreed to take an active role in the Dnestr settlement," Anatol Taranu–an aide to Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi–told Radio Dnestr.
"And generally the question arises – do we need such a Commonwealth of Independent States?"
Despite a peace deal signed last May–disputes remain over Dnestr–where hundreds of people were killed in clashes in 1992 following a unilateral declaration of independence from Moldova.
On the eve of the CIS summit–Yeltsin regretted the member states that had drifted apart. But some other leaders insisted they would not be rushed into reintegrating.
"We have sort of moved away from each other a little. We haven’t met for a while so we need to strengthen our relations," Yeltsin said on Wednesday after flying to Chisinau.
Russia is keen to extend its influence among the other 11. It signed a union treaty with Belarus this year and is trying to build a customs union with Belarus–Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan–whose presidents Yeltsin hosted in Moscow on Wednesday to discuss relations between the four.
Yeltsin said he saw other republics following their example.
"This year there will be a customs union and unified duties which will open up something completely new in our relations," he said. "It is very important–I think–that the whole Commonwealth follows the path.”
Uzbek President Islam Karimov took a different view.
"The ideologists of integration at various speeds are deeply mistaken," he said on arrival in Chisinau–referring to Moscow’s idea that some CIS states may integrate faster than others.
"Attempts to pull others by the ears have no potential. The (Russia-Belarus) union of two and the (customs) union of four destroy the equal relations between the 12 states," Karimov added.
Azerbaijan and Ukraine not only expressed caution but knocked down two of the summit’s agenda items before Thursday’s formal session had even begun.
Kuchma said he opposed a planned convention on transitional corporations. Azeri President Gaidar Aliyev said the idea of setting up a conflict-solving committee was "hardly acceptable."