THE loose ties binding the 11-nation Commonwealth of Independent States appear to be severely weakened following an open display of hostility between Ukrainian and Russian leaders at the March 20 summit in Kiev.
Although the participants at the Kiev summit managed to agree on several military issues, and on the formation of a unified peacekeeping force for disputed regions, the duel between Russia and Ukraine took center stage.
Military issues dominated the agenda, including eight agreements chiefly concerning formation of the unified commonwealth armed forces, its legal foundation and command structure, and appointment of commanders. Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan did not participate in most of the talks on the issue, because they plan to form independent armies.
The spotlight fell on Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, whose public exhibition of disgust with Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the meeting reflected what appears to be a growing resolution among Ukrainians to break away from the commonwealth.
As nearly 1,000 protesters rallied for Ukraine's withdrawal in the square outside the former Communist Party headquarters in Kiev, a visibly irritated President Kravchuk said the three-month-old commonwealth was doomed if settlement of the main points of contention among the republics continued to be postponed and noncompliance with existing agreements continued.
"I'll go even further," said Kravchuk. "Since the first meeting in Minsk in December, the situation in the commonwealth has deteriorated. The commonwealth has failed to find a mechanism for solving its problems."
Rapidly spreading skepticism about the future of the commonwealth and mistrust of Russia has inspired the Ukrainian leadership to develop an economic program designed to break traditional economic ties with commonwealth republics and to accelerate Ukraine's departure from the commonwealth. The program envisions Ukraine's complete withdrawal from the so-called "ruble zone" by April 1. It would also establish a national border between Ukraine and its neighboring commonwealth countries, including Russia.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged this weekend that the program, authored by state economic adviser Oleksander Yemelianov, could be debated in the Ukrainian Parliament in a closed session as soon as this week.
Kravchuk openly expressed frustration with Mr. Yeltsin's refusal to tackle long disputed economic issues, including local succession and division of the property and assets of the Soviet Union among its former republics.
"These questions are too complex," Yeltsin said. "They consist of a number of extensive and very serious items, each of which needs profound analysis and evaluation by specialists."
The controversial issues of joint control over the removal and dismantling of tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, as well as the division of the Black Sea Fleet between Ukraine and Russia, were not discussed.
In contrast to the Ukrainian leader, Yeltsin said the Kiev meeting had been more fruitful than previous summits.
"We couldn't resolve military questions within the course of previous meetings. But today all legal questions dealing with the unified armed forces have been resolved, and this is of paramount importance," said the Russian president.
Kravchuk responded bitterly: "With regard to Russia's position at today's meeting, I can tell you quite frankly, I liked it, because I finally understood today that we are never going to sign an agreement on legal succession."
Yet other commonwealth leaders led by Yeltsin disagreed.
"This commonwealth has far more right to call itself a commonwealth than the Soviet Union had to call itself a union," said Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of the Belarus Parliament.
"Our views of the commonwealth differ fundamentally," said Mykhailo Horyn, a leading Ukrainian nationalist deputy. "Russia sees the commonwealth as a vehicle for maintaining the old union. Ukraine, however, sees it as a vehicle toward independence."