Belarusian leader warns that grouping of ex-Soviet republics could collapse

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Belarus' hardline president warned Monday that attempts to reform a loose organization of former Soviet states that is widely seen as ineffective could provoke the group's collapse.

Alexander Lukashenko told a meeting of foreign ministers from the Commonwealth of Independent States that the group is important for resolving regional issues, but that "there are people in our organization who are strongly interested in ruining the CIS."

"If we want to play into our enemies' hands, we must accept reform," he said during the meeting in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. "It will be the greatest gift to our rivals and opponents who see post-Soviet markets and wealth in their dreams."

No details of the proposed reforms have been made public. But Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose oil-rich Central Asian nation holds the group's rotating presidency, said in July that it should concentrate on economic ties.

This could help keep in the fold Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which are seeking to move out of Russia's shadow and have expressed skepticism about the future of the Moscow-dominated CIS. The three, along with Azerbaijan, have formed a group seen as an alternative to the commonwealth.

The four countries announced Monday after a meeting in Moldova that they had agreed to cooperate in resolving conflicts in their territories, and pledged to uphold democratic values, human rights and political freedoms.

Georgia and Russia are currently locked in a bitter diplomatic dispute provoked by the detention of four alleged Russian spies last month. Despite their release, Moscow slapped a transport and postal blockade on its small southern neighbor, vowing to keep up the pressure until Tbilisi ends what is called its "anti-Russian" behavior.

Lukashenko, an open admirer of the Soviet Union who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand since 1994, has formed a loose union with Russia and is deeply suspicious of Western inroads into the region. He is a pariah in Western capitals, where he has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator."

"The collapse of the CIS would place a very heavy responsibility on us politicians, just like happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union," Lukashenko said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has also watched with concern at the rise of Western-backed governments on Russia's borders, however, has backed plans to revamp the CIS, which was born from the ashes of the 1991 Soviet collapse.

"Reform was thought up not for its own sake, but to improve our cooperation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the meeting.