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Commonwealth Grapples With Property Disputes

Russian-German-US deal aims to put former Soviet nuclear scientists to work on peace conversions, but differences over arms reduction treaties linger

THE marriage of the former Soviet republics in a Commonwealth of Independent States is threatening to be short-lived. The monthly summits of its leaders, like the one that took place Friday in Minsk, increasingly resemble divorce proceedings.

Belarus leader and host Stanislav Shushkevich tried to put the best face on the disagreement when the Minsk meeting ended, as almost every previous session has, with very little in the way of substantive agreements.

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"Yesterday, as never before, we understood that the Commonwealth of Independent States is the structure without which we will never survive," he told reporters on Saturday.

The former Communist daily Pravda greeted such pronouncements with skepticism yesterday. "No matter what optimistic politicians say, speaking in everyday language, they are ensuring not the process of marriage, the creation of a single family, but a process of divorce, the division of everything."

When it comes to the "family" property, nothing is more valuable than the 3.7 million-soldier Red Army, long the symbol and substance of the former Soviet Union's claim to be a superpower. The Minsk meeting failed to reach consensus on 13 agreements designed to maintain a common military for at least a transitional period, including forming a common defense budget.

Such battles over property have made it practically impossible for the commonwealth states to do what they have repeatedly pledged at their meetings - fulfill the international arms treaties signed by the Soviet Union, particularly the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the treaty to reduce Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). At Friday's meeting, commonwealth members delayed ratification of these treaties until at least March 20, when another commonwealth summit will be held in Kiev to try to r esolve the defense issues.

"The regular round of negotiations in Minsk regarding military issues has concluded with the birth of new problems," the Russian government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta said yesterday. "The sides did not manage to form a common military space. The West and the US have grounds to worry; the fate of strategic nuclear forces is still unpredictable."

Such concerns clearly drove the announcement here yesterday, following talks between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and United States Secretary of State James Baker III, of creation of a joint center in Russia to employ former Soviet arms scientists, whom the leaders fear could sell their skills to other countries. The agreement, also joined by Germany, will fund research aimed at aiding the conversion of former Soviet defense industries to civilian purposes. The US will contribute $25 million and priva te investment will be solicited.

The Minsk meeting also was devoted to potential new arms control agreements following initiatives from the US and Russian governments. But progress in that area seems dubious in light of the de facto breakup of the former Soviet armed forces.

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The commonwealth, as Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk told reporters afterward, has formally split into two groups - those who agree to a united army and those who are busy forming their own armies. The former group is headed by Russia, joined by Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and the four Central Asian republics. The latter is spearheaded by Ukraine, joined by Moldova and Azerbaijan.

Even the Russian commitment to a unified military is at best conditional. Before the meeting, Russian officials were openly talking about plans to form their own army, a step they have avoided until now. "All these preparations were made in case no agreement whatsoever had been reached at Minsk," Gen. Geliy Batenin, military adviser to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the Monitor yesterday. "This work is still under way," he added, "but now there is a need to wait for some time and see."

But the senior Russian official made it clear that the thrust of Russian security policy is toward division, not unity. "There is still some hope that joint armed forces of the eight states will be formed," he explained. "This hope stems first of all from the existence of multiple economic ties between these states.... As long as this hope exists, we will continue our drive in the direction of forming the Russian armed forces, but we won't accelerate this process."

The leaders reiterated a commitment to a single command for "strategic" forces, those armed with nuclear weapons, but there is no agreement on what constitutes such forces. The Russian view, shared by the commander-in-chief of the commonwealth armed forces, Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, is that these include virtually all air and naval forces, as well as the nuclear-armed rocket corps and supporting units.

That is a view rejected sharply by Ukraine which lays claim to an undefined part of the Black Sea fleet as well as all air and ground forces based in Ukraine, amounting to 1.2 million men. That force constitutes not only a third of the Soviet Army but much of its most modern units, as it forms the bulk of the western-most defenses of the former Soviet Union.

Russian senior defense official Gen. Konstantin Kobets last week attacked what he called the "privatization" of arms by Ukraine and others. Such an approach would give a disproportionate share of the military to Ukraine, Belarus, and the Caucuses states where forces are deployed along the border of the former Soviet Union, he says.

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