MOSCOW -- The leaders of the former republics of the Soviet Union agreed yesterday to create a peacekeeping force to try to put an end to ethnic warfare raging in several parts of the old empire.
The decision to create the multi-ethnic force was reached at a meeting of the practically moribund Commonwealth of Independent States here. It was unexpected, but clearly linked to the fighting in Moldova, whose bloody conflict poses the hazard of a larger war involving Russia, Ukraine and Romania.
"The foreign ministers and defense ministers will meet and work out mechanisms to create joint peacekeeping forces which will first of all be introduced into the conflict zone in Moldova," Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said after the one-day commonwealth summit in Moscow.
He made it clear the troops would be sent into Moldova only if the republic's parliament issued a formal appeal for help. But he said Moldovan President Mircea Snegur had assured him the parliament -- which meets today -- would do so.
The creation of a commonwealth force implicitly recognizes the failure of high-level cease-fire agreements -- such as one reached in Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks ago -- to work their way down to the men holding the guns.
It also acknowledges that the Russian 14th Army, a holdover from Soviet days based in Moldova, can no longer be considered a stabilizing influence. The army itself concedes that it has been involved in the fighting against Moldovan forces.
Other "hot spots" are in Georgia, where Ossetians are fighting to secede (although Georgia is not a member of the commonwealth), and in the long-running war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Fighting persisted in Georgia yesterday. In the disputed
Nagorno-Karabakh territory inside Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani forces reportedly gained control of Mardakert and the region around the town. The Nagorno-Karabakh press center said about 70,000 Armenians had fled and were headed toward Stepanakert, about 25 miles away.
Indeed, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan expressed grave doubts about the prospects for a CIS force to bring peace.
"To my regret, I must state that the CIS has no mechanisms to resolve inter-ethnic conflicts and all these statements remain words," he told a news conference in Moscow.
The agreement to create the force -- if it is carried out -- might breathe new life into the commonwealth, which was formed to take the place of the Soviet Union last December but has played little role since. It includes all the Soviet republics except Georgia and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Mr. Yeltsin said after yesterday's meeting that creation of a peacekeeping force was the first actual concrete move the commonwealth had taken.
He also said the force could include units from Romania and Bulgaria, if those countries wanted to participate.
Since the beginning of the year Soviet military equipment and weapons have been parceled out to the republics. Now the republics are agreeing to set up a new armed force to keep them from using those weapons against each other.
In Moldova the issue comes down to the future of the Russian ethnic population.
What happens there is being closely watched by those who would stir up trouble, and those who would prevent it, in the Baltic republics and in Central Asia.
Hard-liners insist that Russia must defend the rights of Russians, wherever they live. They find allies, ironically, among human rights activists, who decry the undemocratic nature of some emerging regimes.
Mr. Yeltsin says that Russia will defend Russians in Moldova, but only by political means. Yet he also insists that Russia will not stand by if Moldova decides to rejoin Romania, from which it was seized by the Soviet Union during World War II.
He says he wants autonomy for the Russians within Moldova, in the eastern region called Trans-Dniestria. Mr. Snegur, the Moldovan president, has rejected the idea.
Some in Moldova say that the two countries are already at war. Rumors have swept both sides in Moldova this week of major offensives being prepared.