There they were last week in Istanbul, signing a declaration to transform the states of the Black Sea region into a prosperous European Community-style trade partnership. But those who had flown in from the Commonwealth of Independent States had a lot on their minds apart from lower tariffs.
The president of Moldova, who a few days earlier had declared that his republic was at war with Russia, sat beside the president of Russia, who had been threatening to invade Moldova. Ethnic fighting in Moldova involving heavy tanks and MIG fighters had leveled a number of towns and left about 1,000 people killed or wounded.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan took time out from their long-running territorial war to come to the summit.
The leader of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, left for Istanbul as his National Guard finished rounding up rebels who had seized the main television broadcasting station in a coup attempt. As Soviet foreign minister, Mr. Shevardnadze had helped negotiate an end to the Cold War. He may be wondering why that was easier than to achieve lasting peace between former Soviet republics, neighboring ethnic groups or even Georgian factions.
The news from the Commonwealth of Combatant States, as Moscow News called it this month, has taken on a numbing familiarity.
After decades in the Soviet deep freeze, history has resumed with a vengeance. In mountainous Transcaucasia, old traditions of feuding and revenge are again in the ascendance. Moldova, once the prize in a century-long tug of war between the Ottoman and Russian empires, is torn again between those who look east and those who look west.
As in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, post-Communism is playing out so far not in peace and prosperity but in disintegration and strife. Released from the grip of Soviet totalitarianism, these states are finding a rocky road on the way to the stable market democracy most claim as their destination.
But it is not clear whether the violence of 1992 is the beginning of a spiral into chaos or a passing phase. For there is a trend running counter to the violence: the former Soviet republics are negotiating peace almost as furiously as they are threatening and fighting war.
On Tuesday, Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty settling many of their differences, which have sparked bitter saber-rattling. On Wednesday, a peacekeeping agreement was negotiated by Mr. Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to halt the long-running guerrilla war between Georgians and the Ossetian minority. On Thursday, in addition to the Black Sea trade declaration, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania met for two hours and called for an immediate cease-fire in the Moldovan civil war.
Whether the rag-tag armies on the ground will heed the call, and for how long, is open to question. But the speed with which mutual recrimination turned to negotiations and truce reflected leaders' appreciation of the high stakes in the conflict, which aligns Moldovan forces against the ethnic Russian minority trying to carve out its own state along the republic's eastern border.
Moldova, known not so long ago mainly for its wine, is a Maryland-sized state sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. Of its 4.3 million people, 64 percent are ethnic Moldavians -- which is to say ethnic Romanians.
After Stalin annexed most of Moldova from Romania during World War II, the official Soviet propaganda media set out to create a separate, "Moldavian" nationality and language, with the goal of weakening Romania's claims to the territory. Residents of Soviet Moldavia (as the Soviets called Moldova) were forced to switch from the Latin alphabet used in Romania to the Cyrillic alphabet, and quisling scholars wrote learned tracts to prove that Moldavians were not Romanians.
In the nationalist reawakening that took place across the Soviet Union beginning in 1988, the myth of a separate Moldavian nationality was shattered. People rediscovered that they were ethnic Romanians, and Cyrillic was swiftly abandoned for Latin letters. "Moldavia," the Russianized name of the republic, was officially replaced by "Moldova," the Romanian form.
For one day in June 1990, bowing to nationalist demands, authorities opened the bridges over the River Prut, which separates Romania from Moldova. In a stunning celebration of ethnic unity, an estimated 1 million people crossed the river in both directions to see old friends and relatives or simply to have a look around.
But what thrilled the Romanian-Moldavians terrified Moldova's ethnic minorities, particularly the Russians who make up 13 percent of the population and the Gagauz (pronounced in three syllables, gah-gah-ooze) who are about 4 percent. The Russians are concentrated on the east bank of the Dniester River along the Ukrainian border in a narrow strip of land that happens to contain nearly all of Moldova's industry, power plants and major rail lines. The Gagauz, Turkish-speaking Christians, live in the rural south.
Afraid that Moldova ultimately would reunite with Romania, making them ethnic outcasts in a Romanian-nationalist state, both the Russians and the Gagauz unilaterally proclaimed their own, little republics: the Trans-Dniester Moldavian Republic and the Republic of Gagauzia. The Moldovan government, with the fervent backing of thousands of volunteers, vowed to stop the secession attempts. A bloody on-again-off-again civil war ensued.
The demise of the Soviet Union did nothing to resolve the standoff, but both sides inherited an impressive arsenal from the defunct superpower. Romanian military advisors and Romanian arms have been reported on the Moldovan side. Rogue units of the former 14th Soviet Army have joined the fray on the side of the Russians, and Mr. Yeltsin has threatened to intervene "to halt the bloodshed." Such an escalation might have brought Russia and Romania into open war.
Mr. Yeltsin is in a particularly difficult predicament. There are ethnic Russian minorities in every former Soviet republic, and in many places Russians complain of discrimination or fear violence. If Mr. Yeltsin intervenes strongly on the side of the Trans-Dniester separatists, he not only risks a bloody war but sets a precedent for such intervention in other republics. But if he fails to intervene, he leaves himself politically vulnerable to Russian nationalists at home, who will accuse him of standing idly by while Russians die.
All the republican leaders, and Mr. Yeltsin most of all, understand that they need to spend less time feuding and more time coaxing their economies back to life. "We want to prove to the world," Mr. Yeltsin said hopefully in Istanbul, "the stability of this region."
Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent for The Sun from 1988 until 1991.