After more than eight years of moribund activity, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States hailed the first summit of the new millennium in a showing of renewed hopes for an effective forum among the 12 former Soviet republics.
Russian acting President Vladimir Putin unanimously elected chairman of the CIS before having been officially elected president of Russia united other leaders' expectations that the loosely oriented organization could be transformed into a cohesive institution, observers say.
"By appointing Vladimir Putin chairman of the CIS, the heads of state have shown their trust in Russia and their respect for Vladimir Putin," Azerbaijani President Heider Aliev said at the concluding news conference, according to The Associated Press.
The sentiment was echoed by leaders from other republics, some of which have at times had tense relations with Moscow since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many leaders appeared to use the summit to solidify their relationship with Russia and its new chief.
"Russia is the connecting link, the bullwark of the CIS," said Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Putin, while addressing leaders of the CIS states, emphasized that "cooperation with the CIS was, is and will be of absolute priority for Russia. It's clear today that fully independent states have emerged in the post-Soviet space. Our aim is to preserve the best we had in the Soviet Union."
He added that fighting terrorism would be a major aim of the invigorated CIS.
"After its disintegration, an illusion persisted that in some parts of the Soviet Union, there were weak points where international terrorism in all its forms could easily develop," AP quoted the Russian leader as saying. "We have no right to allow this and will not allow it. There will be no chance."
Nearly a decade ago, Boris Yeltisn, and the-then leaders of Ukraine and Belarus established the CIS in order to ease the division of the former republics from the Soviet Union. Since then, the body has served as little more than a symbolic affiliation.
The lack of an active and consistent leadership role was one of the major factors crippling the efficacy of the CIS organization in the past, along with national disputes among the constituent countries, experts say.
But now, with raging popular domestic sentiment behind Putin carrying over to the transnational arena, expectations seem to have arisen for future ties between Russia and its former Soviet counterparts.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who pledged support to Putin even before the opening of the summit, expressed hope that his meeting with the acting Russian president "may become a breakthrough in solidifying Russian-Georgian relations" that have been under considerable strain since Russia launched its Chechen offensive last year.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said he'd "go home in a much better mood than ever," and added "that for the first time we have had a real dialog in the CIS summit. For the first time, all of us have felt assured that the CIS has a future."
But not all observers were convinced that the CIS would immediately be converted into an effective political, military and economic grouping.
Alexander Iskandarian, from the Center for Caucasian Studies, was pessimistic about the prospects of improved ties between Russia and Georgia, AFP reported. "Russia's interests are completely opposed to those of Georgia. No breakthrough is possible," he said.
Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center was cautious about the quick embracing of Putin as the savior of the CIS.
"First and foremost," Malashenko said, "Putin is not yet the official president of Russia. Should he be elected, then a strengthened alliance with the CIS will serve merely as an instrument to further procure Russia's own national interests."
Despite disagreements in the past among CIS members, leaders at the summit indicated open approval of Russia's military policy in the North Caucasus, referring to the war carefully and indirectly as an anti-terrorist operation, and the main threat to the stability of the Commonwealth.
Accordingly, Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev's proposal to adopt a policy that would lead to the formation of a "unified center to combat terrorism, drugs and extremism" was passed.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, in commenting on Belarus' full-fledged support of the Russian military operation, emphasized that the support of CIS members nearer to the conflict was especially apparent during the summit.
The Russian military offensive dominated the summit and overshadowed pressing economic issues, which many experts said were crucial if Russia is to meld the CIS into an effective long-term grouping.
Nazarbayev, who had been pressing the question of a Free Economic Zone, admitted after the summit that no substantial decisions were made on this issue. Despite generally positive remarks, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma warned that the CIS would remain an ineffective and unaccomplished organization if it fails to create a free-trade zone, Reuters reported.
Some officials of member countries hailed the CIS renewal as a counterweight to Western pressures.
Sergei Kostyan, a key member of Belarus' National Assembly, told The Russia Journal from Minsk that the West's economic expansion is "a threat to the sovereignty of all non-Russian CIS countries." He emphasized the need to create a defense union because "there is a threat from the West, and we have to defend the CIS borders. No one will mess with the CIS if it becomes an economic and military power."