Eleven Republics Lay U.S.S.R. to Rest

Expanded Commonwealth Leaves Much Undecided; Fighting Roils Georgia

By Elisabeth Rubinfien, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

December 23, 1991

Moscow -- The Soviet Union made way for the new Commonwealth of Independent States over the weekend when 11 republics signed on as co-founders and agreed to recognize current borders and pursue centralized control over nuclear weapons.

But the new partners failed to resolve the most difficult problems of all, the economy and joint defense.

Meeting in mountainous Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, the heads of 11 of the 12 remaining Soviet republics agreed to join Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine in the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The other republics to participate are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Moldavia, Tajikistan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan.

Georgia, the only Soviet republic not to sign (aside from the three newly independent Baltic states), sent observers. Meanwhile, in Georgia's capital of Tblisi on Sunday, opposition forces attacked central government buildings in a bid to overthrow President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whom opponents describe as dictatorial, reportedly leaving more than a dozen dead and scores wounded.

The republican leaders found no new role for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who hadn't been invited to the meeting. Instead, they invited him to accept a pension and other benefits and "resign with dignity."

Speaking on the U.S. television program "Face the Nation," Mr. Gorbachev said: "As soon as I receive official documents and see that the commonwealth is a reality, I will then within a few days take my decision" on quitting. "As for the role that I will be playing," he added, "this will be decided in the near future."

In Washington, a White House spokeswoman said the U.S. intends to build close relations with the republics but that Secretary of State James Baker will discuss the situation with President Bush and the U.S. will consult with its allies before deciding on extending diplomatic recognition.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin called the treaty signing an "historic event" and said, "The main principle is the independence of every state, without the center, without diktat." The agreement must be ratified by the 11 republics' Parliaments.

The republics' ability to achieve political consensus and repress their mutual distrust has been remarkable in the three weeks since the Ukraine's landslide pro-independence vote set the process in motion. But there is little sign that in this new framework they will be any more able to quickly resolve the key remaining questions than they were in months of negotiations under Mr. Gorbachev.

Those negotiations, Mr. Yeltsin told the independent Interfax news agency, "proceeded from a mistaken basis" of including a strong united center. "In the {commonwealth}, such a center, which could command every step of ours, doesn't exist and won't. That is why this appeals to all the republics."

With Russian radical economic reform just around the corner, the now reviled center has yet to be replaced with any concrete alternatives. The republics agreed to meet again Dec. 30 to resolve the details of nuclear command policy, whether conventional forces will be unified, and how 11 separate economies will be coordinated.

What exactly coordination means also isn't spelled out. The central question now is whether such coordination will mean that Russia backtracks on its own plans for immediate economic shock therapy, or that Russia forces the other republics to follow its lead.

In the area of price liberalization, for example, Mr. Yeltsin said upon his return to Moscow that the republics will coordinate pricing policy. Russia plans to free prices Jan. 2, having already postponed the move by two weeks in a concession to the Ukraine and Byelorussia. But the Ukraine says it needs 16 billion rubles in cash to cope with the inflation that will immediately ensue. And Russia, which has taken over the central bank, hasn't enough rubles available to run things on its own territory. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov said after the treaty signing that price liberalization would have to wait until the poorest sectors of society were taken care of.

Mr. Yeltsin also said that the ruble will remain the common currency among the republics and no republic will issue its own currency without coordinating with the others. Russia has boasted that one of its great successes in reaching the original agreement with its Slavic neighbors Dec. 8 was persuading the Ukraine to abandon the idea of issuing its own currency. But in Kiev, the plan is still on to print the hrivnya starting in May.

At this point, the commonwealth agreement virtually states that other aspects of the economy will muddle on as they have been. With the accelerating collapse of the central system over the past year, enterprises have taken to concluding barter deals for their own needs and republican governments have started blocking exports to other republics.

"Each republic will pursue its own economic policy" aside from pricing and reform questions, said Mr. Yeltsin. At a news conference in Alma-Ata after the meeting, republican leaders said that members of the commonwealth proceed from the assumption that they are bound by common interests and therefore each state will fulfill its commitments in such a way as to receive from others what is due to it. Since Uzbekistan, for example, provides mainly cotton to Russia, some Central Asia experts worry how much oil Russia will decide is due to it in exchange.

The republics finished work on five documents at their Saturday meeting, outlining several structural, defense and diplomacy-related points. On structure, it was agreed that the eight new members will have equal status with the three original founders and a committee of ambassadors will handle day-to-day coordinations while heads of government and state and ministerial committees will meet periodically. On diplomacy and defense, the republics agreed that central military leadership will continue during the transition to full reform of the Soviet military structures. The republics also agreed to support Russia's plan to take over the Soviet Union's General Assembly and Security Council seats in the United Nations.

The republics also decided to make Soviet Defense Minister Yevgeny Shaposhnikov commander-in-chief during the transition period.

The question of joint defense is as thorny as the economy. Russia, the Ukraine and the Soviet defense ministry each prepared its own draft of a defense treaty before the meeting. The Ukraine's version was the loosest, with separate armies for each state and only nuclear weapons under joint control.

The four states where long-range nuclear arms are based, Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan, signed an additional agreement stating that until nuclear weapons based in the Ukraine and Byelorussia are destroyed, they will be under the control of Russia, which will consult with the others on their use. The Ukraine and Byelorussia also announced their intention to join the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty as non-nuclear states. They and Kazakhstan agreed to transfer their tactical nuclear warheads to Russia to be destroyed under joint supervision by July 1, 1992.

But exact procedures for joint nuclear control remain to be worked out. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan says it will retain its nuclear weapons until Russia's are destroyed. Yet Russian officials say that Russia will be the only nuclear power remaining.

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