Yeltsin strengthens hand in Commonwealth of Independent States, parliament


MOSCOW -- Nine of the 15 former Soviet republics signed a declaration yesterday of their intent to form an economic "union" to try to restore cohesion to their relationships.

While the agreement is only a declaration of intent, it was praised by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin as a "turning point" in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose, 10-member group formed after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Even Ukraine, which has been the most prickly about any encroachment on its new sovereignty, signed the declaration.

Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk and Prime Minister Leonid S. Kuchma have encouraged stronger economic integration and cooperation among the nations of the former Soviet Union, whose economies and factories had been dependent on suppliers that are now in foreign countries.

An archaic banking system that can take four months to transfer money between states and the emergence of new currencies and customs duties have worsened the economic travails of the commonwealth countries and caused a precipitate drop in trade and production.

Mr. Yeltsin said the states would now work on 25 documents as a foundation for the economic relationships. These are said to include a currency union for states using the ruble; a customs union that would eliminate duties among members; coordinated macro-economic policies; and an interstate bank, which was agreed to in January.

The documents are to be considered at the next commonwealth meeting, scheduled for July 16.

According to the declaration, "heads of state of the commonwealth announce their determination to proceed along the path of deep integration, the creation of a common market for the free transit of goods, services, capital and labor on the common economic space of the states and to move by phases toward an economic union."

President Kravchuk of Ukraine was careful to emphasize in a joint news conference after the one-day emergency meeting that intent was not the same as agreement, that he did not even care for the word "union," and that "It is too early to say to what extent different countries will be integrated into the union."

Turkmenistan was the only member that did not sign. President Saparmurad N. Niyazov told the Interfax news agency that it was too early for an "economic union," and Turkmen officials asked to be given time to study the documents.

Yesterday's agreement was in marked contrast to many earlier meetings of the commonwealth, which have been argumentative and rarely ended in lasting agreements. The commonwealth comprises all the former Soviet republics except Georgia and Azerbaijan, which attends as an observer, and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Mr. Yeltsin was careful to stress that Russia harbored no expansionist designs and was not trying to re-create a Soviet Union with Moscow at its center.

"The imperial past has become part of history," Mr. Yeltsin said. "We are for rapprochement, but not through force or diktat, but on a voluntary basis of free choice by every state."

However, yesterday's meeting was another reminder of Russia's weight as the main inheritor of the old Soviet Union and its economic wealth.

That impression was further strengthened by Mr. Yeltsin's separate meeting with President Eduard A. Shevardnadze of Georgia. They called for a May 25 cease-fire in Abkhazia, which is fighting for independence from Georgia and which has had some assistance from Russian troops, though apparently without authorization from Moscow.

Mr. Yeltsin got some good domestic news yesterday in his struggle for a new constitution that would disband Russia's Congress of People's Deputies and create a new parliament. The deputy chairman of the Congress, Nikolai T. Ryabov, took the floor during the session to support Mr. Yeltsin's effort to create a constitutional assembly dominated by regional leaders but including some current legislators.

Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the Congress' speaker and one of Mr. Yeltsin's main opponents, has denounced the idea of a constitutional assembly, rejected Mr. Yeltsin's draft constitution and said only the Congress can pass a new one.

But in a revolt that could spread and sharply undermine Mr. Khasbulatov's position after Mr. Yeltsin's success in an April 25 referendum, Mr. Ryabov urged deputies to accept Mr. Yeltsin's special assembly and open a cooperative dialogue with the president.

"It's a question of Russia's future, of parliament's future," he said. "Rejection of this presidential proposal would lead us directly onto a path of social confrontation."

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