By Emil Danielyan
The leaders of eight former Soviet states, including Armenia, discussed the possibility of forming a free-trade zone similar to the European Union or North American Free Trade Association at a summit in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said most members of the Commonwealth of Independent States favor the idea and will sign an appropriate agreement in September. "For us within the framework of the CIS the first problem, more than anything else, is economic," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also came out in support of such an agreement. "Free trade among us is the most reliable means for regional development and stability," Putin said. "The process of our economic coordination has begun."
The CIS leaders reportedly gave no further details of the proposed arrangement. Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s position on the issue was also unclear. Armenia has previously refused to join a customs union of Russia and three ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, pushing instead for a membership of the World Trade Organization.
The Kiev summit elected Kuchma as the new chairman of the CIS. The largely ceremonial post had been held by Russian presidents ever since the creation of the loose grouping 11 years ago. The move, suggested by Putin, appeared aimed at dispelling fears of its continued domination by Russia.
The summit was attended by the leaders of only eight of the twelve CIS members. The presidents of four Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- stayed away and sent envoys in their stead.
On Tuesday Putin held a traditional separate meeting with his Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian counterparts to discuss security and economic cooperation in the Caucasus. "We have always given much attention to the development of economic contacts, solution of conflicts, and development of infrastructure projects," Putin said afterwards, according to Itar-Tass news agency. "This will help us make the regional life safer and more predictable, and enable its people to live better."
There were no reports of a separate face-to-face meeting between Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev. The two men have regularly discuss their unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on the fringes of previous CIS gatherings.
(AP-Photolur photo: CIS presidents pose for photo at the presidential residence of Mariyinskiy palace in Ukrainian capital Kiev Wednesday.)