Former Soviet Republics Break Free

LONDON, UK -- ONE of the last vestiges of the Soviet Union appeared to be crumbling yesterday, when four former republics signalled they would be pulling out of the organisation established to keep the Kremlin connected with its lost empire.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (C) gestures as he shows the Dniepr River to Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (R) and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) during their meeting in Kiev May 22, 2006

At a meeting in Kiev, the leaders of the pro-Western states of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine pledged to form their own association to promote democratic values.

They also hinted they would leave the Commonwealth of Independent States, which was created 15 years ago as a group representing most of the former Soviet republics.

While the CIS never fulfilled any great economic or political function, its very existence was supposed to reflect Moscow's continued influence from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and on to Central Asia.

But ties between the Kremlin and some of its former client states have deteriorated with a wave of democratic movements that swept pro-Western leaders into power in Georgia and Ukraine and encouraged anti-Russian sentiment in Azerbaijan and Moldova.

The new group, to be called the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development, will be based in Kiev.

It will rival the CIS, which is based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it is headed by Vladimir Rushailo, a tough former Russian interior minister.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said: "Our citizens are giving us a mandate to develop strong, democratic and successful states."

The move is seen as a huge snub to Moscow, which has not been invited to join.

It faces the prospect of being left in a CIS of eight states including Belarus, regarded as the last dictatorship in Europe; Armenia; and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The splits within the CIS ranks have been growing in recent months.

Moscow, which backed Mr Yushchenko's opponent in the Ukrainian elections, clashed with Ukraine this year when it suspended gas sales, causing an energy crisis across Europe in the middle of winter.

The Kremlin has also argued openly with Tbilisi over Russian support for two breakaway regions in Georgia and its reluctant withdrawal of troops from the country.

Moscow's recent decision to ban the import of Georgian and Moldovan wine, on the spurious ground that they contain pesticides, has further strained ties.

Azerbaijan has provoked the ire of Moscow by developing close ties with the US and building an oil pipeline to pump crude from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, bypassing traditional Russian control over energy supply routes.

Moldova signalled yesterday that it might be the first country to quit the CIS.

President Vladimir Voronin said the issue would soon be debated in parliament, where the move was likely to be approved.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said his country was also debating the value of remaining in the CIS, and that the question of withdrawal would come up before parliament in a few months.

"Many in Georgia have been very critical of the CIS, of its performance, of its efficiency, and we, as a government, are accountable to the people's concerns," he told Britain's The Times during a visit to London.

He said Georgia had attempted to make the CIS more efficient and capable of dealing with important bilateral disputes, such as the Russian wine ban, but that the CIS was incapable of addressing real issues.

"What is the sense in having an organisation that fails to discuss basic issues that affect the countries concerned?" Mr Nogaideli said.

"It seems to me that Russia itself is not interested in the CIS, in reality. They want to keep it as an organisation, but they don't want it to be an effective and functional organisation.

"Russia only keeps it for prestige."

Source: The Times