The pact between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine is aimed at being a first step toward creating a common market and is one of the most concrete accomplishments in the 12-year history of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
But comments by some of the signatories suggested that implementation of the pact, which must still be ratified by the signatories' parliaments, could stall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the four-way pact would lead to "an increase in the competitiveness of our goods in international markets, ease contacts between manufacturers within CIS and will create good conditions for the development of our economies."
But other signatories were less enthusiastic.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he signed the pact "with the gravest of doubts." The authoritarian leader is currently embroiled in difficult negotiations with Russia on a separate Russo-Belarus monetary union.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had faced both domestic and international pressure not to sign the pact, with critics saying it could hurt Kiev's hopes of someday joining the European Union and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Kuchma said he signed the agreement because the European markets "are closed for us."
The signing came on the second and final day of a CIS summit here, during which its members put off inking a separate accord to create a free-trade zone on the territory of 11 of USSR's 15 former republics…
Putin lashed out at suggestions that Friday's agreement was an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.
"I think that is utter nonsense," a visibly agitated Putin said at a press conference. "People have no idea what they are talking about."
"That page, it was a very difficult page in the history of our nations, the Soviet Union," Putin said. "It was heroic, it was creative and it was also tragic. But it has been turned. That's it. The train has left."
AFP, September 19, 2003