Members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian-inspired association of twelve former Soviet republics, continue to show more interest in independence than in commonwealth. A “reform forum” in Belarus early last week dissolved in disagreement over the agenda, forcing indefinite postponement of a prime ministers’ meeting set for Thursday and a presidents’ meeting set for early October.

The differences among the members are fundamental. Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan want military and political issues excluded from discussion, and most countries–but not Russia–want to move quickly to eliminate trade barriers and set up a regional free-trade area. Russian expansionism and protectionism are simply not compatible with the CIS as it is today.

Presiding over the failed Belarus meeting was CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky. The Russian media baron, oil tycoon, financier and gazillionaire has had a bad month. Not only has he seen his assets dwindle with the ruble’s fall; he has also had to endure the humiliation of the defeat of Viktor Chernomyrdin, his candidate for prime minister.

But hard times have not curbed his creativity. Acknowledging that the CIS is “incapable of formulating common goals” because its members have “contradictory interests,” he suggested a novel fix. “The CIS must not be circumscribed within the confines of the former USSR,” he said. “There is enormous potential in cooperating with Iran.” A surprising idea perhaps, but with Iran-friendly Yevgeny Primakov as premier, new alignments and relationships on Russia’s southern borders will be thoroughly explored.