MOSCOW -- In another blow to the shaky Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine and two other republics rejected the idea of a unified commonwealth military force during a summit meeting yesterday.
Eight of the 11 republics represented at the meeting agreed to create a unified military command for a transitional period of two years. Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan rejected the idea altogether. The three republics are pushing ahead with creation of their own armed forces and have claimed the weapons and equipment on their territory.
The one-day summit was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
A Belarus spokesman stressed that yesterday's disagreement did not affect decisions to keep nuclear weapons under central command.
The bad-tempered tone of the meeting fell below even the modest expectations of many of the participants.
The 11 republics present could not even agree on the name of the first document to be discussed, the commonwealth's main television news program reported. Tension between Russia and Ukraine once again seem to have overshadowed the day's discussions.
Ukraine's president, Leonid Kravchuk, accused Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the commander of the commonwealth armed forces, of selling off ships and submarines of the Black Sea fleet behind Ukraine's back. Russia and Ukraine are locked in an acrimonious dispute over the fleet.
"Seventy percent" of misunderstandings between the republics on military matters are caused by Mr. Shaposhnikov and his deputies, Mr. Kravchuk told journalists.
Mr. Kravchuk also criticized Russia for its economic policies, notably accusing Russia of failing to supply the rubles it needed to keep its economy functioning.
The Russian-Ukrainian dispute was further highlighted by reports yesterday that six SU-24 light bombers were flown from a Ukrainian base to Russia. The move seems to be linked with Ukraine's insistence that troops on its territory should swear allegiance to the republic.
The latest round of disagreements, and the bitter disputes between Russia and Ukraine over economic and defense issues, underline the degree to which hopes of creating a loose alliance of states have dissolved in just two months.
When 11 republics gathered last December to hammer the final nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, they agreed in a joint statement to retain a broad degree of coordination in economic and defense issues.
This was intended to facilitate economic reform and to reassure the rest of the world that the breakup of the world's second nuclear power would be carried out with the minimum of friction and confusion.
Most hopes of any significant economic cooperation between the most influential members of the commonwealth faded almost immediately, and several republics -- among them Ukraine -- plan to introduce their own currency.
Mr. Kravchuk, whose Russian has become more heavily accented these days -- a number of republican leaders like to emphasize that Russian is their second language -- made it clear from his first minutes in Minsk that there could be no question of a single armed force.
"Unified armed forces can only logically exist in a unified state," Mr. Kravchuk said at the Minsk airport. "If 12 states have single unified army, it's the end of democracy. The military would be higher than politicians."
Mr. Kravchuk and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin are expected to meet again in Minsk today.
In the buildup to the Minsk summit, Yeltsin aides said publicly that the time had come for Russia to create its own armed forces. Mr. Yeltsin had repeatedly said that he would sanction this only when the majority of commonwealth republics had done so.
Despite reports that he might sign a decree setting the process in motion immediately after the Minsk meeting, Mr. Yeltsin told journalists yesterday that he did not intend to do so "for the time being."
The republics taking part in the Minsk meeting were Azerbaijan, bTC Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Georgia, which has been showing signs of emerging from its self-isolation since the overthrow of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January, sent an observer.
The slowness with which the commonwealth is making any progress is beginning to depress its supporters.
"We talk and we talk, we sign documents" said Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. "But the commonwealth we planned still hasn't happened."
Azerbaijan's decision not to join a unified command comes at a time of growing tension with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last night, Russian radio reported that Azerbaijan's president, Ayaz Mutalibov, had left Minsk early, saying that Russian troops based in Karabakh had gone on the offensive against Azerbaijani positions.
Earlier yesterday, Azerbaijan alleged that the bodies of Russian soldiers had been found among the dead in the latest round of fighting. The Azerbaijani government, under intense pressure from an even more aggressively minded opposition, asserts that Russian troops based in Karabakh are supporting the Armenians.