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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Joins 4-Nation Economic Zone

APKuchma, Putin, Nazarbayev and Lukashenko celebrating their new union on Friday.
YALTA, Ukraine -- Leaders of former Soviet republics endorsed an ambitious plan Friday aimed at recreating the economic union that collapsed with the breakup of the Soviet Union, a move they stressed was a not a bid to turn back the clock but to pump up the region's sagging economic might.

The Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics, agreed to move toward the eventual creation of a free trade zone stretching from Central Asia to the edge of the European Union.

Leading the march were Russia and three of its neighbors, who signed a separate four-way agreement to create a common economic space akin to the EU that envisions the free movement of goods, capital and labor as well as common tariffs and customs.

Earlier attempts at economic unions among former Soviet states have been hindered by gaping differences between scales of economy and levels of development, as well as fears of domination by Russia -- a concern that has not died away. In fact, few observers have been able to get access to the union's content.

"This is a document that is a foundation for solving economic problems. ... And the most important thing is that it does not threaten the political interests of our countries," Putin said after a day and a half of talks.

He also dismissed any suggestion the new body was tantamount to a return to the Soviet Union: "That is complete rubbish ... that matter is closed."

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma agreed with Putin and the others -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- that the union was vital to secure economic growth, independently of Europe and beyond.

"European markets are closed to us. ... [Now] we are moving ahead and not standing still," Kuchma told reporters. "Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow."

The four nations set a Dec. 1 deadline to outline the main steps needed to create the common market, which ultimately will require harmonizing legislation.

Nazarbayev, whom Putin credited with proposing the idea, emphasized that it was "not a closed organization" and that the other eight CIS nations would be encouraged to move toward membership.

In the meantime, all members of the CIS initialed an economic plan stretching through 2010, which envisions moves toward harmonizing their markets, particularly in the transport and energy sectors.

But moving ahead with the plans adopted Friday is likely to be fraught with complications. Lukashenko hinted at the problems ahead when he complained about the already slow movement of integration and warned that his country would take the necessary steps to create the common market only after his partners do so.

For Kuchma, the agreement has sowed political turmoil at home, with several Cabinet members openly defying his decision to move forward with it despite considerable popular opposition.

On Friday, he supported firing ministers who opposed the common market, but he refused to dismiss them himself.

Some had voiced concerns that the pact would jeopardize Ukraine's goal of joining the World Trade Organization and integrating into the EU, while others claimed the pact contradicted the country's constitution, legislation and international agreements.

(AP, Reuters, MT)