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#18 - JRL 7040
Non-Russian Leader for Ex-Soviet Alliance
January 29, 2003

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States elected Ukraine's president as chairman of the loose alliance of former Soviet republics Wednesday, the first time a Russian president has not been chosen to head the group since its creation in 1991.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was unanimously elected chairman after Russian President Vladimir Putin nominated him during what was billed as an informal CIS summit.

The move, which had been resisted in the past by some alliance members, was intended to dispel fears of Russian domination of the alliance.

``Russia has made a mistake'' by always leading the CIS and rotating the position would boost trust in the alliance among the public in member states, he said.

Putin first made the proposal at a CIS summit last fall, but it met resistance from several leaders who argued it would weaken the Commonwealth. The Russian president raised the proposal again Wednesday without warning and persuaded the others to accept the idea.

The appointment followed Kuchma's proposal at the previous CIS summit to sign a free-trade agreement between members of the alliance. Kuchma said the accord should be ready for signing at the next summit, set for September.

Plans to remove trade barriers between member states have dominated the CIS agenda since its creation, but have never been implemented.

Attempts at forging closer economic ties have been hampered by the stark differences between the sizes of the member economies and their levels of development, as well as fears that Russia might seek to dominate the organization.

Wednesday's summit suffered from the lowest attendance in years, with attendance by only eight of the 12 alliance presidents. The presidents of four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - stayed away and sent envoys.

Kuchma in the past has been skeptical of the CIS, but he has developed a growing interest in the group as he has found himself increasingly unpopular at home and abroad. The U.S. government has accused him of authorizing the sale of sophisticated military radar to Iraq.

While having little role in economic policies or regional conflicts, the CIS has offered the post-Soviet leaders a venue for discussing disputes.

The Russian leader used the summit to quell a dispute with Georgia over Russia's decision to open a direct link with the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia - a move Tibilsi perceived as a threat to its sovereignty.

Putin promised to help ethnic Georgian refugees return to Abkhazia and reaffirmed his government's support for Georgia's sovereignty.

Before the summit, Putin and the Kuchma signed a treaty Tuesday to end years of disputes by delineating the border between Russia and Ukraine, the two most populous former Soviet republics.

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