The heads of the governments of five former Soviet countries led by Russia agreed on Friday to push ahead with plans to form a single customs union by 2006.
Creation of the customs union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would still "require hundreds of decisions ... but should be achieved in 2006 if preparations are energetic and fortunate," Russia's acting prime minister Viktor Khristenko said at the meeting in Kazakhstan.
Harmonizing tariffs between the countries would be accompanied by joint efforts to prepare for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Kazakh Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov told journalists.
Mountainous Kyrgyzstan is alone among the five countries at Friday's meeting to have already joined the WTO and has accordingly boasted modest success in building economic ties with neighboring China.
Tariff harmonization among former Soviet countries has been dogged by national sensitivities since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, with Russia standing accused of taking unfair advantage of its heavily indebted former satellites.
Simultaneously Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been working on plans for a more close-knit single economic space.
Such efforts could however complicate the WTO membership ambitions of those involved, several of which have very different economic profiles, commentators have said.
Jang Group, http://www.jang.com.pk, February 27, 2004