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

Article excerpt

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.

"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 resolve 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 private investment will be solicited. …