Washington, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The new Russian-Belarusian union charter calling for closer integration of those two countries in fact makes the formation of a single federal state including them or other former Soviet republics significantly less likely in the future.
As signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on Friday, the charter contains some impressive language about cooperation in a variety of spheres including foreign policy, economic reform, energy, and transportation.
It raises the possibility of a common currency and even common citizenship in the future. And it creates a Supreme Council that is supposed to increase cooperation between these two states and to attract other former Soviet republics into signing this charter.
But like all previous efforts to promote integration in the post-Soviet space, this one does little to change the situation on the ground. Instead, it highlights just how far apart Moscow and Minsk now are -- let alone Moscow and any other former Soviet republic capital -- on both the meaning or even the desirability of closer ties.
Despite his reputation for seeking unity with Russia at all costs, Lukashenka himself made it very clear last week that there are very real limits to just how far even he is prepared to go. Notably, he spoke out against any arrangement that might threaten Belarusian independence or give Moscow a free hand or even an expanded voice in Belarus itself.
Specifically, Lukashenka said on Wednesday that "setting up a federation with Russia would be worse for Belarus than when it entered Stalin's Soviet Union." And on Thursday, he forced Yeltsin to drop a clause the Russian president had inserted in the charter suggesting that the two countries should ultimately merge into just such a federal state.
And just prior to the signing ceremony at the Kremlin, Lukashenka dismissed the claims of some Russians that the charter represents the first step toward the reestablishment of a single, Moscow-led state on the territory of the former Soviet Union. He told Moscow's Ekho radio that the new charter would do nothing more than "confirm in law what has existed in fact for quite some time."
Lukashenka's past statements, his transparent personal ambition for power in Moscow, and his increasing authoritarianism at home have combined with widespread assumptions about the supposed lack of any fundamental differences between Russians and Belarusians to ignore the broader implications of what this latest charter means.
But it is precisely Lukashenka's personal approach and how close Belarus and Russia are in certain respects that provides some important clues on the more general issue of just how Moscow and the non-Russian countries are likely to relate to one another in the future.
If Belarus and Lukashenka are not prepared to proceed toward total reintegration with Russia that many in Moscow want, then certainly no other country in the region is likely to be willing to go even as far Minsk now is.
Even more than Belarus and Luakshenka, no other non-Russian country and lead are willing to move toward closer integration with Russia in the absence of Moscow's recognition of the state independence and equality of that country and Moscow's willingness to commit to a specific set of rules that will control Russian actions even as they control non-Russian actions.
Further, and again even more than in the case of dealing with Belarus, no Russian leader is willing to make such commitments to the complete equality of these countries relative to Russia or to tie Moscow's hands in its actions toward its neighbors. Indeed, just as in the current case, Russian leaders are the ones who have rejected any move toward a more precise definition of the permissible.
Such differences in understanding about what integration should mean are becoming an ever greater and more important obstacle to any agreement that might be freely arrived at between Moscow and Minsk and between Moscow and the other former Soviet republics.
That is certainly how many of the leaders in this region view the situation. As Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister Yerlan Idrisov commented last week, the Russian-Belarusian accord is likely to share "the face of many other integration deals" within the Commonwealth of Independent States and remain "only on paper."
Such an outcome, of course, would not be a tragedy for many of them. Indeed, it would confirm the victories of 1991. But unfortunately, the failure of agreements like the one signed last Friday could lead to another outcome: It could lead some in the region to conclude that re-integration should be pursued by means other than democratic and voluntary ones.
If that happens, it would be a tragedy not only for countries most directly involved but for everyone else as well.