The Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) -- a grouping of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- will merge with the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), a body seeking to establish a single economic zone comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, and Belarus. Such was the decision taken by CACO leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg October 6.
The Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) was born in 1994 as the "Central Asian Economic Community."
It adopted its current name in 2002 to stress that cooperation had extended to political and security matters.
The CACO, however, will soon become a thing of the past. It will be merged into the Eurasec, set up in 2000 to promote the economic integration of former Soviet republics into a single, free-trade, economic zone.
The decision was announced October 6 by the five CACO leaders at a meeting in Russia's northern city of St. Petersburg.
President Vladimir Putin told a news conference after the meeting that Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who holds the Eurasec presidency, had formally approved the decision by telephone.
Putin, who turned 53 the day after the announcement, praised the agreement with marked enthusiasm. He went so far as to declare the decision his best birthday present.
"We have just spoken to Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; he support the CACO's decision to join the Eurasec. So all that remains is formality," Putin said. "I consider this decision from my colleagues and friends the best birthday present."
Speaking to reporters October 7, after a second day of talks with CACO leaders, Putin expressed hope the merger could soon be implemented.
"I am happy the decision that took place yesterday and that we have announced was taken in our country," Putin said. "I hope the concrete steps we have planned toward the realization of the decisions will be implemented in the very near future."
CACO leaders admitted both organizations had increasingly similar goals and said they were therefore joining forces to save time and money.
Despite its central role in both groupings, Russia is actually a newcomer in the CACO. It joined the organization in 2004, in a move illustrating Moscow's growing strategic interest in the Central Asian region.
Sergei Ponarin, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he sees the CACO-Eurasec union as a sign of further rapprochement between Russia and Central Asian countries.
Russia, he said, has three good reasons to be interested in Central Asia.
"Firstly, to maintain its status in Central Asia," Ponarin said. "Secondly, to improve cooperation in the security sector, this is certain. Thirdly, Russia is possibly hoping its capital will expand further in Central Asia. Our big industrial heritage can't just be thrown away, we have to find offers somewhere."
Not Without Its Critics
Many observers, however, have scoffed at both CACO and the Eurasec. The groups, they say, have proved little more than a talk shop and has so far largely failed to produce results.
Will their merger be able to breathe new life into post-Soviet republics' unification project?
Ponarin said he thinks not.
"No, it won't help. Because Russia's representatives in various unification organizations linked to Central Asia are as a rule what we describe, excuse me, as 'rubbish,'" Ponarin said. "All intelligent, interesting people seek to join structures linked to the West. Those who do not make it there, losers, end up here. It's sad, but it's a fact."
Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine had observer status in the Central Asian Cooperation Organization.