- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to form a free-trade zone and develop a coordinated economic policy.
The plan is intended to ensure the deepest level of economic integration between the former key Soviet republics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"This is a higher level of integration than the customs union or the Eurasian Economic Community," Russian Economy Minister German Gref told reporters in Moscow. "It envisages the creation of a supranational body on foreign-trade regulation."
In a statement signed Sunday, the four presidents said the goal of the plan is to establish an organization of regional integration and a free-trade zone by September.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the group will be based in Ukraine and led by a Kazakh representative.
All four presidents stressed that the body, which will be set up by September, was not intended to replace the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose organization of former Soviet republics established in 1991. Mr. Putin said other CIS states would be welcome to join the new body.
Analysts say that what separates the current attempt to create a free-trade zone from previous efforts to integrate former Soviet republics is the strong political leadership in Russia.
"A lot of it is going to depend on whether it's going to be something that is truly modeled on the European Union or whether it's going be a framework that allows geopolitical pressure," said Sherman Garnett, a specialist in U.S. foreign relations and dean at Michigan State University.
The four former Soviet republics are not planning to introduce a common currency, Mr. Gref said.
He said the four nations would have to first complete internal restructuring and coordinate their economic policies to ensure free movement of goods and services, Interfax news agency reported.
Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, criticized by the West for anti-democratic and anti-market policies, was blunter in demanding closer cooperation.
"We understand that we are of no use to anyone except our own countries and peoples, and will defend out markets in any way that we can," Mr. Lukashenko said.
The four nations have also agreed to coordinate their respective campaigns to join the World Trade Organization, stressing that it is essential for the formation of common export-import policy.
In Ukraine, which also seeks to join NATO and the European Union, the idea of the integration was met with controversy.
It was largely supported by communists and those who back the current government. Pro-Western opposition forces insisted the union would contradict strategic interests of Ukraine.
Anatoliy Orel, a high-ranking Ukrainian official, told reporters in Kiev yesterday that the move was driven by economic opportunities and that it would accelerate Ukraine's integration with Europe.
Michigan State's Mr. Garnett said the effort faces an uncertain future.
"If it has an effect of turning Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan inward, if it sets up barriers between regions and the rest of the world and, especially, if it has a set of political and security ambitions, it's probably a bad thing," he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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