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Former empire echoes Kremlin after strikes

Cold-war-style unity called surprise at time when most ex-Sovietsatellites woo West.

Russia's outrage over NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia echoed across its former Soviet empire, with a surprising revival of cold-war unity among its erstwhile protgs.

Defying analysts' expectations of a deep split within the 12-member Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), only Azerbaijan showed solidarity with NATO, going so far as to offer troops to join the assault.

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The other 11 states, perhaps for fear of alienating regional powerhouse Moscow, came out in support of their old master. Belarus suggested deploying Russian tactical nuclear missiles on its soil and offering military assistance to Yugoslavia. Parliamentarians in Ukraine and Kazakhstan called for lifting their countries' nonnuclear status.

CIS defense ministers meeting in Moscow yesterday denounced the strikes as a violation of international law, and called for a political settlement to the problem. But like Russia, they ruled out taking on NATO militarily.

"[NATO ignored] the disastrous consequences of armed interference in Kosovo for the security of Europe and world affairs," they said in a joint statement.

The strong show of unity surprised many political analysts, who had expected a more muted reaction by several countries that are actively courting the West.

SINCE the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has declined economically to become essentially a third world country taken seriously mainly for its nuclear arsenal.

Its three former Baltic vassals - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - have bolted into the arms of Western Europe, refusing to join the CIS. The 12 states that did form the commonwealth are for the most part trying to dilute Russia's hold on them, with only Belarus actively seeking to reunite.

"I would expect a split among CIS countries over bombing Yugoslavia," says Nikita Tyukov, a regional expert from the SPIK research center in Moscow. "But in general the conflict will not spill into the CIS itself. Concrete economic and financial matters are more important for these countries. They are less interested in international politics."

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Show of support or not, most CIS members do not empathize with Russia's humiliation over being written off as an onetime big power. Nor do Central Asian states with large Muslim populations share Russia's cultural-historical affinity with the Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbs.

But for many, NATO's first uninvited foray into a nonmember country sets a disturbing precedent. Russia worries about the implications for its breakaway Chechnya region, Georgia is coping with separatism, and Azerbaijan and Armenia are at odds over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

Analysts believe that, while it is frantically trying to win IMF loans to stave off economic collapse, Russia can do little to express its displeasure. Moscow has frozen relations with NATO and darkly hinted at ignoring arms embargoes against the Serbs and pariah states.

Likewise, the CIS has mainly rhetoric at its disposal and even that involves mixed messages, especially in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, which seek to become independent of Russia.

Yesterday, for example, even as Ukraine's parliament called for altering Ukraine's nuclear-free status in response to the raids on Yugoslavia, President Leonid Kuchma was speaking about improving relations with NATO.

Azerbaijan, which, like Kazakhstan, has been courting the West to develop its oil and gas reserves, has been snuggling up to Turkey and Washington to the irritation of Moscow. So it came as no surprise when the Foreign Ministry announced yesterday it had proposed sending 30 troops to Kosovo to serve with Turkish NATO troops.

Analysts do not discount clandestine support to the Serbs from organized crime or mercenaries. They point to a mysterious aircraft from Kazakhstan that was detained in Azerbaijan earlier this week, carrying MIG jet fighters.

Rogue elements would be expected, especially in the current economic climate, says Vladimir Averchev, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament). "I think everything is possible in our disorder," he says. "All former Soviet states possess MIG planes. There are many private mercenaries that participated in Bosnia and they could do it again now."

But others argue that the surveillance of Yugoslav borders would make it hard to smuggle in aircraft or air-defense systems.

"Yugoslavia is surrounded by states that are neutral or friendly to NATO efforts," says Sergei Kolmakov, deputy director of the Politica foundation, a think tank based in Moscow. "It would be very difficult."

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