Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to Create Single Economic Space

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Economy the Underlying Basis For the Move, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev Says

WASHINGTON, DC, February 26 - Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine announced Feb. 23 in Moscow plans to boost economic links between the four nations by establishing the Single Economic Space, or a free trade zone.

In the statement read out from the Kremlin by Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, the leaders said the move was motivated by "the desire to raise the standard of living in the region and by the need for sustainable development."

All four countries already belong to myriad organizations established over the past decade to promote integration in the former Soviet Union. But those organizations have been largely ineffective, said President Nursultan Nazarbayev, adding that last year Kazakhstan's trade with Russia and Ukraine saw declines.

"I hope this is a completely new breakthrough in our relations. The heart of the matter is in the tariffs and trade," Nazarbayev said. "For the first time in history we begin integrating not from the political top down, but from the foundation up."

In their declaration, the four leaders said that an agreement to form the free trade zone would be ready by September 2003. By that time, their governments should have negotiated common economic policies, harmonized legislation and created an interstate commission on trade and tariffs.

"Through the legislation we will give the commission a mandate and it will independently regulate tariffs and trade," Nazarbayev declared.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said that the interstate group to prepare the draft agreement would be based in Kiev and headed by an official from Kazakhstan.

The leaders said the ultimate objective of the work would be to establish the Regional Cooperation Organization.

Putin said that other interested members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of former Soviet republics, would be welcome to join.

Because of President Nazarbayev's long-stated initiatives on economic integration, the announcement was not unexpected in Kazakhstan among the country's experts, who believe the new formation will be economical in nature.

"The bloc is being created for purely economical considerations," said Dr. Maulen Ashimbayev, head of Kazakhstan's Institute for Strategic Studies in

Almaty, in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta of Russia. He said the 11-year-old Collective Security Treaty within the CIS provided enough potential to take care of political and security issues.

"Oil production and transportation to Europe would be the main issue on the agenda," said Ashimbayev, but the nations will need "to expand mutual trade and industry development."

The four presidents made the statement after the two days of meetings in Moscow and after laying the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Kremlin wall to commemorate the Feb. 23, formerly the Soviet Army Day.

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