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Press Review: Unity in Belarus

By Donald Hill

Prague, April 3 (RFE/RL) -- Commentators in the Western press examine Russia's new treaty with Belarus with fascination and anxiety and -- in some cases -- blame fixing.

Britain's The Independent editorializes today on the Belarus-Russia pact: "Less than five years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia is taking steps to bring as many former Soviet republics as possible back under its wing.... Yesterday, Russia and Belarus went even further... In an extraordinary and rather alarming remark last Friday, Mr. Yeltsin suggested that Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could sign the treaty uniting Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps he had a memory lapse; the independence of Eastern Europe is absolutely not up for discussion."

Miriam Neubert wrote yesterday in the Suddeutsche Zeitung: "When Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenko walked down the Kremlin's Holy Staircase with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church between them, that was Yeltsin's well-nigh triumphant response to the challenge posed by the communists in the Duma.... Three weeks ago a majority of Duma deputies voted in favor of resurrecting the USSR. Integration has come to rank alongside the war in Chechnya as the most important issue in the Russian presidential election campaign. But Yeltsin is not keen on integration at any price. Russia itself has only just, with great difficulty, embarked on the road to stabilization and cannot afford to take on an ailing economy in which inflation and economic decline exceed its own.... Yeltsin may need the new confederation as a political ploy in his presidential election campaign, but economic realities show the two countries to be poles apart."

A commentary in The Wall Street Journal Europe today by author John Laughland contends that Russia's new 'imperialism' bases its dogma on Europe's own economic unification ideology. Laughland writes: "As the heads of state and government of the European Union met in Turin last Friday to revise the treaty on European integration, the heads of state of four former Soviet republics were in Moscow to sign a treaty on 'economic and social integration.' ...European ideology is becoming a significant weapon in Russian geopolitical strategy. The ideology allows the former Soviet republics to regroup in the name of economic integration."

Writing from Minsk in the British newspaper Financial Times, Matthew Kaminsky pursues an historic perspective: He says: "Three times this century, Belarus turned into a killing field. Both wars claimed millions of lives, and Stalin's purge claimed the small local intelligentsia. From then on, Soviet orthodoxy took firm root. Today, the scars run deep, exposing a fatalism and passivity in the country of 10.7 million (people) that served to curb the national revival which characterized the post-1991 era for its neighbors, all located near the geographical center of Europe.... Belarus, unlike other Eastern European nations, has never developed an independent identity. And the current president and his supporters appear to prefer it that way."

Chrystia Freeland writes today in the Financial Times: "Jesus Christ and the ghost of the Soviet Union both were evoked at a lavish ceremony yesterday when Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a landmark union treaty with neighboring Belarus, which the Kremlin leader hopes will boost his chances of reelection.... The signing... could provoke fears in the West and independence-minded neighboring countries such as Ukraine that Moscow intends to bebuild its old empire. (The) patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church... was on hand to bless the 'sacred cause.' ...Mr. Yeltsin's shift towards a more openly expansionist policy could create a political dilemma for Western leaders, who fear a resurgence of Russian imperialism, but also hope that Mr. Yeltsin wins in June."

"In a staged display of Slavic brotherhood, the presidents of Russia and Belarus signed a pact yesterday to bewilder the post-communist world," David Hearst writes today from Moscow in Britain's The Guardian. Hearst says: "They called their new alliance the Community of Sovereign Republics -- the SSR, whose cyrillic acronym is only one letter short of USSR. To a Russian ear, nostalgic for the economic and political certainties of the past, the SSR sounded much like business as usual. Only the word 'socialist' was missing."

Two reports appear today in the British newspaper The Independent, Central Europe correspondent Adrian Bridge writes: "Thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets of Sofia yesterday to protest against recent moves by Russia to draw the country into a new Moscow-led pact. The demonstrators denounced comments by the Russian president... that a recent agreement... could be expanded to include 'other countries... perhaps, for example, Bulgaria.' "

From Moscow, Helen Womack says: "Thousands of Belarussians cast off their national stereotype as passive people and took to the streets of Minsk last night in defiance of their conservative leader... Lukashenko, who had earlier signed a treaty... on integration with Russia.... Because Belarus is in deeper economic trouble than Russia, Mr. Lukashenko has been pressing for the closest possible relationship. But Mr. Yeltsin has been more cautious, lest Belarus become a burden."

Thomas de Waal writes today in The London Times: "Yeltsin and Lukashenko... signed a treaty creating a Commonwealth of Sovereign States between their two countries yesterday, in a move aimed at outflanking the Russian Communist Party's plans to reinvent the Soviet Union.... 'Before our eyes history is returning to its sources,' the (Russian Orthodox) patriarch said, blessing the union of 'two brother nations christened together.' However, such feelings were not shared in Minsk yesterday by about 5,000 people who marched through the Belorussian capital towards Mr. Lukashenko's offices to protest the pact.... The deal is a triumph for Mr. Lukashenko, who... has campaigned for integration with Russia. Belorussia is the most russified of the former Soviet republics and the national language is not widely spoken."