Prague, 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka were upbeat about Belarusian-Russian relations after meeting yesterday on the Russian Black Sea coast.
Lukashenka told reporters in Sochi that the only problem left in Minsk's relations with Moscow is strengthening mutual cooperation:
"There are no differences [between Belarus and Russia] either in trade relations, or economic issues, or diplomacy, or foreign policy, where there has been full coordination between our countries, especially in the last one or two years, or in political relations," Lukashenka said.
Putin said an agreement has been reached on Russian gas supplies to Belarus, the most contentious issue between the neighbors this year. The leaders also announced 1 January 2006 -- a year later than previously planned -- as a target date for the introduction of the Russian ruble as a common currency for both countries.
The upbeat rhetoric marked a clear change in tone from their talks last summer in Sochi, when Putin expressed doubts about Moscow's relations with Minsk. Nevertheless, analysts remain skeptical, saying problems persist between the two neighbors.
Vladimir Dorokhov of the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies told RFE/RL that the talks achieved little more than declarations.
"The problems [between the two countries] remain. And, in fact, these problems were cited during the meting. Introducing a single currency has been postponed for a year again," Dorokhov said. "Now, as we have heard, it will take place on the first of January 2006. So, the problem of a single currency remains. The second problem is not only privatization of Beltranshaz [Belarusian gas company], but overall participation of Russian capital in the Belarusian privatization."
"The regimes in Russia and Belarus are becoming more similar and it is easier for them to agree." -- analyst
Some said the apparent determination of Russian companies to gobble up Belarusian firms set for privatization might also be causing problems in bilateral relations. Lukashenka reportedly opposes what could amount to a Russian takeover of the Belarusian economy.
Dorokhov said that serious political problems between the two neighbors also remain unresolved. Although both leaders talk about a future union state, the constitutional structure of this entity remains unclear. No new plans have been publicly proposed or agreed upon.
Meanwhile, despite Lukashenka's comments about a common foreign policy, Dorokhov said the countries have become too different to adopt a unified diplomatic approach.
"The first difference lies in their understanding of what state authority implies. Different understandings exist on what methods are allowed to be used [by the state]," Dorokhov said. "Yes, there is a lot of talk now among analysts that Russia is following the Belarusian example by strengthening its political regime. But I would like to point out one very important difference: [The two countries] seek very different purposes. Authoritarianism in Belarus is a tool for Lukashenka to stick to power."
Like Lukashenka, Putin is also concentrating power. But Dorokhov said Putin's motives are different and include a bid to modernize Russia and integrate the country with the West. Such an approach, Dorokhov said, has little in common with Lukashenka's bitterly anti-Western stance.
Alyaksandr Klaskovski, an editor for the Belarusian Internet publication "Belorusskie novosti," is among those who believe Russia is now following the Belarusian model of post-Soviet authoritarianism. He said that Moscow accepts violations of human rights in Belarus because "antidemocratic tendencies in Russia itself make the Belarusian regime more acceptable for the Kremlin than they were before."
"The regimes in Russia and Belarus are becoming more similar and it is easier for them to agree," Klaskovski said. "If before Belarusian democrats thought that Moscow would oppose a third term for [Lukashenka's presidency], now it is completely unclear if it will."
Klaskovksi said Lukashenka senses such a change in Moscow. "He understands that for Moscow, the main aim is to have stability in Belarus, without caring very much about democracy and other niceties. That's why they agree and find no differences. The countries are really getting closer."
Kiril Koktysh, a Russian and Belarusian expert at Moscow's Institute of International Affairs, said he believes that Lukashenka's remarks about "no problems" between Moscow and Minsk should be seen in a broader international context.
He said the remarks were prompted by Lukashenka's concern that the United States may be developing a tougher stance aimed at "regime change" in Minsk.
"There were no breakthroughs," Koktysh said. "Lukashenka simply hurriedly addressed [Putin] asking if [Russia] would shield him [from the United States]. He was told the protection might be coming. They [Lukashenka and Putin] had a conversation but no concrete promises were given."
Koktysh pointed to comments made last week in Latvia by U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona).
According to ITAR-TASS, Putin was asked at his Sochi news conference with Lukashenka about the remarks by McCain, who said the United States should seek to remove Lukashenka from power through increased international pressure.
The news agency quoted Putin as replying cryptically: "I don't know if he [McCain] is right or wrong. I'm familiar with his statement." But Putin went on to say that it is up to Belarusians to choose their leadership.