In the old days of three years ago, Boris Yeltsin called informal meetings with his ex-Soviet counterparts “no-necktie summits.” The phrase was meant to convey comradely fellowship and earnest labor, not bibulous sloth, but the label did not hide the sullen disinterest of most of the ex-colonies in the goings-on.

Last week Vladimir Putin met his counterparts at a mountaintop ski resort near Almaty (Alma-Ata) in Kazakhstan. The no-necktie phrase, like Yeltsin, has passed into history, but the grumpy disarray remains. The Commonwealth of Independent States (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) has diminishing coherence.

The stunning changes that followed September 11 have left the Kremlin struggling to retain and expand its influence in much of “post-Soviet space.” America’s new interest in the region gives hope to those local leaders who seek some counterweight to Russia’s military superiority and economic power. With Americans seeking their favors, Central Asian leaders have the leverage to break out of or ignore Russian-designed institutions designed to limit their international freedom of action-institutions like the CIS Collective Security Treaty (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and its Antiterrorism Center; the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan); the Caucasus Four (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia); or the Eurasian Economic Community (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). Georgia can confound pressure to accept more Russian forces on its territory by welcoming American military advisors to deal with the anarchy in the Pankisi Gorge.

To make the point, the four Central Asian leaders (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) jumped the summit gun, meeting on February 28 just hours before the official opening to sign a charter for a new Central Asian Cooperation Organization. The CACO, whose purpose is creation of a Central Asian common market for goods, capital and labor, excludes Russia and renders the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community obsolete. The EAEC, which died aborning in May 2001, itself replaced a moribund CIS Customs Union (1994) and Free Trade Zone (1996). The CACO stands no better chance of success than its predecessors. The likelihood that the four autocrats who run its member states will do much to liberalize domestically, much less internationally, is close to nil.

Unlike many Russian officials, military officers and political commentators, President Putin does not call the U.S. presence in the region a challenge or a threat. The deployment of American Special Forces in Georgia is “no tragedy,” he said. “We support an antiterrorist effort in Pankisi, regardless of who conducts it.” Whether Putin’s motives are statesmanlike or tactical is hard to say, but he is taking a political risk by refusing to pander to cheap patriotism and anti-American sentiments. His attitude gives a boost to American officials who argue for accommodating Russian interests (in Chechnya, in strategic-arms reduction, in NATO and elsewhere) in order to build a deeper, closer relationship.