Prague, Mar 25 (RFE/RL) - "Somebody has got things
mixed up," exclaimed Russian President Boris Yeltsin when asked today
about reports that Russia would form a single state with Belarus.
There was no question of "forming a single state with Belarus" he
But in the minds of many the doubts remain.
The reports of the impending re-unification of Belarus with Russia
followed an announcement made two days ago in Moscow by Belarus
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that on April 2 he would sign a unity pact with Russia.
Lukashenka told the Russian media that a plan for the
union had been approved in principle during two days of talks with
Yeltsin and the Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Lukashanka said that a draft accord on the issue envisaged the
formation of a union of the two states led by a "supreme council"
endowed with "very wide powers," and comprising presidents, prime
ministers and heads of parliaments of the two countries.
He also said that the two states would have a common budget for some
joint programs, an inter-parliamentary congress in which they would
be equally represented, and an executive committee that would "in
effect became a government."
Lukashenka then added, seemingly as an afterthought, that "Russia
and Belarus will retain national sovereignties within the new union."
Commenting on the announcement, Russian presidential spokesman
Sergei Medvedev confirmed that talks between Lukashenka and the
Moscow leaders focused on integrating the two countries. But he was
quick to say that the goal of this process was to bring "a
comprehensive rapprochement" between them, rather than to effect a
It would be something akin to the European Union, Medvedev said,
with its own anthem, flag, parliament and a budget. But he went on to
emphasize that "no unification of the two countries' budgets is
anticipated." Medvedev's disclaimer reflected Moscow's concern that
any move toward a full integration of Belarus into Russia would
necessarily involve considerable economic costs and rather dubious
Belarus gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991. But during the subsequent years, the new country has
suffered a major economic decline, with widespread disintegration of
its industrial base, plummeting production and financial decline.
No reforms have been planned, and the economy remains basically as
it was during the communist era, with state-run industries and
collectivized agriculture. The standard of living of the population
have been dropping year after year.
Lukashenka was elected president in 1994 on the strength of a
promise of re-uniting Belarus with Russia. The pro-Russian sentiments
has always been strong in the country, in which about 20 percent of
the population is ethnically Russian. Many a Belarusian worker or
peasant has seen, and still sees, Russia as the main provider of
goods, security and protection.
Last year, an overwhelming majority voted in a referendum to bring
about an economic union with Russia, to make Russian an official
language in the state and to replace the national flag with an old
During past months, Belarus entered into a customs union with
Russia, granted Moscow leases for military bases and signed an
agreement with Russian government renouncing mutual debts.
But the movement toward integration has been slow and many economic
agreements have been ineffective. Russia has continued, for
example, to sell to Belarus its energy resources, primarily gas
and oil, at world prices and not at Russian domestic rates as
provided in the customs treaty.
Lukashenka clearly wants to speed things up.
The Belarusian political establishment, which has frequently
quarreled with Lukashenka about prerogatives, is unlikely to oppose
that move. It consists largely of former communists and bureaucrats.
A budding nationalist movement has been effectively deprived of influence in the country's politics. In the eyes of many
observers, and numerous Belarusian intellectuals alike, Belarus has
failed to develop a distinct national identity of its own.
But Lukashenka's announcement on re-unification prompted a major
public protest in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Tens of thousands were reported to have marched two days ago on the streets decrying the plans of unity. This was the largest public demonstration in Belarus since the country gained independence.
The protest was quickly dealt with by the Belarusian police. But it
has signaled that any precipitate steps to rebuild the old Soviet
empire around Russia could run into public opposition. That alone
might have made the Russian leaders to hesitate on any apeedy
measures toward re-unification.
Today,it was announced in Moscow that details about the integrative
steps will be determined only after new negotiations. And only after the Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Belarusian leaders agree on the scope of integrative measures within the Commonwealth of Independent States. This is to take place March 29.
But a member of the Belarusian parliament, Mikhail Goryn, already told a Moscow television station two days ago that the new union between Russia and Belarus could herald "the end, or the beginning of the end, of the Belarusian independent state." And he added that
"this is also a big defeat for the democratic Russian state. There
can be no democracy in an empire."