DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Leaders from eight former Soviet states gathered Saturday to celebrate enduring cooperation over the two decades since their nations collectively gained independence, but mutual acrimony and recriminations cast a shadow over the event.
The heads of state from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose association of ex-Soviet republics, ended the summit in the capital of Tajikistan by signing a declaration calling for peaceful conflict resolution among member states and the creation of a free trade zone.
The summit took place against the backdrop of a simmering row over natural gas prices between Russia and Ukraine. The Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations also exchanged frosty remarks about their long-running dispute over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an authoritarian whose government is also at odds with Moscow over gas prices, did not turn up at all. Other no-shows included the presidents of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Attendees included Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Krgyz President Roza Otunbayeva.
A lackluster summit will likely only serve to deepen misgivings over future of the 11-nation CIS, an organization created in the dying days of the Soviet Union as a forum for dialogue. The Tajikistan summit appeared more than anything to act as a venue for airing mutual grievances and frustration with the West.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych tried Saturday to quash suggestions that Russian gas monopoly Gazprom might be allowed to take over Ukraine's pipeline network in exchange for a deal on lower gas prices.
Ukraine is piling pressure on Russia to reduce prices for its gas, saying that an 2009 import contract contradicts an earlier deal and must be revised.
Russian news agency Interfax cited Yanukovych as saying settling the gas price issue will have to become before any other commercial negotiations can take place.
The prospect of another standoff over gas prices causes alarm in Western Europe, which relies on Russia for a quarter of its gas needs. Some 80 percent of the gas bound for Western Europe is carried through Ukrainian pipelines.
Ukraine wants to reduce the amount of gas it buys from Russian by one-third to 27 billion cubic meters annually. The current contract requires Ukraine to pay for at least 33 billion cubic meters of gas per year, regardless of the quantity it actually imports.
During the plenary session, Medvedev sharply criticized the election monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic rights group. Virtually all elections held in the CIS since the fall of the Soviet Union have been deemed unfair by the OSCE, fostering much resentment among the former Soviet nations.
"All of us try to hold free and democratic elections. But this does not give a free hand to any outside force to form the domestic situation in our countries," Medvedev said.
Azerbaijan's Prime Minster Artur Rasizade reacted angrily to an address in which Armenian president Serge Sarkisian praised the people of Nagorno-Karabakh for what he described as their struggle for self-determination.
Armenia gained effective control over most of the breakaway territory that lies within the territory of Azerbaijan after a bitter war between the countries that ended in 1994, leaving 30,000 dead and more than 1 million displaced.
"Once again, there has been another demonstration of Armenia's unconstructive position in the settlement of this difficult and protracted conflict," Rasizade said.
In the spirit of the uneasy mood that appears to have prevailed at the summit, Rasizade also tartly admonished Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon's repeated references to the "Republic of Azerbaijan."
"We're not the Republic of Azerbaijan, we're the Azerbaijani Republic, by the way," he said.
Associated Press reporter Peter Leonard in Moscow contributed to this report.