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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Doing Well: A System on Life Support

At least two of the 10 Commonwealth leaders went to Minsk prepared for a "High Noon" -style shootout. Both Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Leonid Kravchuk, arrived in the Belarus capital ostentatiously carrying mysterious packages of documents to unveil if the talks went awry.

But the papers stayed in their briefcases, unneeded, and the summit passed off with less rancor than perhaps any before.

However soft its ending, the Minsk summit was a watershed at which Russia was forced to choose between two potential evils To the east, there was the prospect of a split with Kazakhstan and the Central Asian republics it no progress was made on forming a new charter and institutions tor the vaporous Commonwealth

To the west, Moscow risked a final and lethal split with Ukraine if Kravchuk were to feel he was being forced into a corner and told to sign the charter or leave. The Ukrainian would then have pulled from his briefcase a diluted version of the charter to compete with the one on offer.

In the end, a face-saving compromise was found allowing all 10 statss to sign a protocol expressing their basic support for the Commonwealth of Independent States. The three countries that did not sign the stronger charter -- Ukraine, Moldova and Turkmenistan -- now have a year to decide whether to join or not, while still being able to claim that they are full members.

After Minsk it could be said that the Commonwealth is doing as well as can be expected for an organization on life support. But the final reckoning has only been delayed, as the fundamental differences between Russia and Ukraine remain.

When Yeltsin, Kravchuk and the Belarus president, Stanislav Shushkevich, met outside Minsk on Dec. 8, 1991, the Commonwealth they produced was already a compromise. Russia and Belarus both wanted a strong union, while Kravchuk was looking for a good divorce lawyer.

Kravchuk repeated that idea -- of a Commonwealth that will last only as long as it takes to get Ukraine a real divorce from Russia -- in Minsk on Friday.

What has changed over the last year is that all members seem now to understand that the Commonwealth has two essential, if unglamorously negative, functions.

The first is to avoid war. "Can you imagine", said Yeltsin, "what would have happened among the four nuclear states if there had been no CIS? " Nobody challenged Yeltsin on that. and the second is to prevent total economic collapse. Even Kravchuk agreed that the Commonwealth must help to end financial chaos and free-falling production levels in the former Soviet republics.