|Russia's Putin once again heads ex-Soviet bloc
MOSCOW : President Vladimir Putin took over once again as head of the CIS ex-Soviet bloc at a summit in the Kazakh capital Astana, the Interfax news agency reported.
Russian leaders have traditionally headed the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics, since its creation in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But in January 2003, Putin handed over the chairmanship to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, marking the first time that a non-Russian leader was at its helm.
This was seen as a move to shore up Kuchma, then under international and domestic pressure over US accusations he had approved arms sales to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
The Russian leader said at the time it had been "a mistake" for Moscow to insist hitherto on retaining the CIS presidency, and that it would now rotate among the organisation's members.
At the opening of the summit Thursday, Kuchma said the fight against international terrorism would take center stage at the meeting and said the leaders at Astana were determined to "unite their efforts to fight it".
The summit comes two weeks after the bloody school hostage siege at Beslan blamed on rebels from Russia's breakaway Chechnya region that culminated in the deaths of 339 people -- half of them children.
Kuchma branded it as "a challenge not only to the Russian Federation but to the entire civilized world".
"We are unanimous in believing that modern terrorism poses a threat to all countries, and it is necessary to combine efforts to fight it," he was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"We confirm our firm resolve to do all we can to effectively fight international terrorism in all of its forms," Kuchma said.
Russia has long sought to use the ex-Soviet club as a means to extend its influence in Moscow's former satellite republics, but it has remained little more than a talking-shop.
This time, as usual at CIS summits, there were no-shows.
Turkmenistan's reclusive President Saparmurat Niyazov declined to attend due to a prior medical appointment.
The Moldovan leader Vladimir Voronin also stayed away from Astana, criticising the 12-nation organisation as ineffective.
He said the Astana talks would be dominated by a meeting of four former Soviet states -- Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- which aim to establish an economic zone called the Common Economic Space (CES).
The commonwealth includes all the former Soviet republics except for the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have recently joined NATO and the European Union.
It seems that despite all the positive rhetoric, the CIS has no real future. Relations between Russia and Georgia have been tense for the last decade. Moldova's relationship with Russia has also soured due to Moscow's support for the separatist Transdniester region. Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war since the collapse of the USSR. How can the CIS be a united bloc with all these divisions?
I believe the CIS has much potential but until all these problems are resolved, it will struggle to emerge as a viable power bloc.