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Russia-Belarus Pact Backfires on Yeltsin

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 26 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's latest effort to win support from the increasingly nationalist Russian electorate - his plan for a new union between Russia and Belarus - is already beginning to backfire inside Russia, in the former Soviet republics, and in the West.

As a transparent electoral ploy, Yeltsin's plan for some as yet not completely defined union with Belarus is costing Yeltsin his traditional base at home without gaining him a reliable new one. Reformist leader Grigoriy Yavlinsky has denounced the accord as a "pre-election absurdity," arguing that it would create new problems for Russia as well as "discredit" the idea of integration. And the leaders of the communists and nationalists, Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have suggested that Yeltsin is only meekly following their lead, hardly a presidential posture.

Yeltsin, who has risen in the polls in recent months, may not care all that much about the reformers: they seem less numerous than ever before and may have nowhere to go in a contest between Yeltsin and either a communist or nationalist candidate. But the support the Russian president is getting from the latter two groups may be costly. Not only does it call into question his reformist credentials, but such support could quickly evaporate if the Russian electorate begins to focus on the direct costs of a union with Belarus and the indirect costs of the reaction of both Russia's non-Russian neighbors and the West. And it could prove to be a straightjacket in the event that Yeltsin were reelected primarily with the votes of those who support such a policy.

If many Russians questioned the move, even more non-Russians did. More than 10,000 Belarusians demonstrated against it in Minsk and had to be dispersed by force. The Ukrainian government suggested that this latest Yeltsin move would both reduce Moscow's ability to put pressure on Kyiv and allow Ukraine to gain new support in the West. And the Central Asian governments, which in the past have been more supportive of greater integration with Russia, publicly denounced the move. All three of these developments were widely reported in Russia itself and will only reinforce the views of many that Yeltsin and his team are incapable of implementing even the policies of his erstwhile opponents.

And finally, there is the reaction from the West. So far it has been limited. But there is a clear undertone of concern about where Russia is heading.

NATO meetings this week with leaders from several East European states will undoubtedly serve as the occasion for more definite expressions of these worries.The U. S. State Department cautiously said on Monday that Washington would not object to any union between Russia and Belarus as long as it was not based on intimidation, threats, or the use of force. Such a formulation hardly represents a ringing endorsement of Yeltsin's latest moves.

These reactions suggest that Yeltsin and his advisors may not have thought through all the consequences of their accord with Belarus. And there are at least three such consequences they should be worrying about in the coming days.

First, Yeltsin stands to lose as many votes as he gains by such actions. Many reformers have already deserted him, others may now do so because of the direct costs of absording Belarus, and his communist and nationalist opponents are unlikely to believe that he will be willing or able to carry through what has been their program to the end.

Second, Yeltsin is undermining the possibility of future and broader integration throughout the CIS. In addition to the accord with Minsk - a step many non-Russians found threatening - Yeltsin made another move this week that will only exacerbate their concerns. Over the weekend, he reached an agreement with Abkhazia, a breakaway republic in Georgia but one whose government Yeltsin seems to be treating as an independent state. This accord raises their oldest fear: Moscow may now be ready to use its power to undermine their independence whatever it says about their sovereignty.

And third, Yeltsin is in danger of isolating himself from the West. He may not care about that - indeed he may have concluded that it is politically wise - but he must ultimately care about the stability of his country and that of its neighbors. Yeltsin's current policy, which appears to threaten the use of resources and even force that Russia now does not have, calls that into question.