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Russia and Belarus: The Politics of 'Integration'

Prague, Feb. 29 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin confidently predicted this week that democratic forces would have to support him in the upcoming presidential elections. Yeltsin told reporters it was very simple, noting, "They have no other option but to back me. There is no one else."

But while Yeltsin expects the democrats to rally to his side, he has also begun actively wooing disaffected voters nostalgic for the old Soviet system. Recently, Yeltsin has sharply criticized his own government for not paying enough attention to the social impact of reform. He has fired leading economic reformers, promised to have back wages paid and announced a major subsidy to the ailing mining industry. And now, it seems Yeltsin will try to use his office to outmaneuver Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov on the geo-political front.

The Russian president's meetings this week with Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka provided the perfect opportunity. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has promised, if he gets into power, to seek the repeal of the December 1991 treaty finalizing the breakup of the Soviet Union. Zyuganov has repeatedly said he wants to see a voluntarily reconstituted Soviet Union - with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan forming its central component. And the Communists specifically blame the current Russian leadership for dismembersing the USSR.

After meeting in the Kremlin, Yeltsin announced that Russia and Belarus had decided to write off each other's debt. Belarus owes Russia more then 500-million dollars for gas deliveries, but Moscow also has not paid Minsk for components of nuclear missiles removed from Belarus territory. Now, the countries will restart bi-lateral trade with balanced books. What struck observers most about the announcement is that the debt-forgiveness arrangement was not new. It had been proposed by Belarus as far back as two years ago, but had been consistently rejected by Russia.

Now, all of a sudden the deal, which holds immediate advantage for Minsk, has gotten the go-ahead from Yeltsin after barely two hours of talks. But most interesting is that Yeltsin, after his meeting with Lukashenka, said he shares the Belarusian's president "goal" of unification - "not only in our lifetime, but during our presidencies." The two presidents said the Kremlin meeting was only the "first step" to closer cooperation between Moscow and Minsk. Another meeting has been scheduled a month from now, during which a comprehensive series of treaties will be signed. No details of the agreements have been released.

But it has set the pundits speculating. Is true integration just around the corner - perhaps even before June's Russian presidential election ? Analysts point out that on the economic front, there have been at least 100 treaties signed between Russia and Belarus. Among the most important is a customs union, which also includes Kazakhstan. But most of these agreements, including the customs union, appear to exist mostly on paper. A planned monetary union has never happened. And just recently, the Belarus government signed a joint venture agreement with Ford Motor Co. to assemble cars in the country. The deal directly contravenes the terms of the customs union - which sets high tariffs against foreign car manufacturers and is supposed to give Russia privileged access to the Belarus market.

Observers say all the talk about integration must be seen as a political move. The Russian daily Izvestia wrote this week that "only the blind" could "fail to see that the cause of integration" is at risk of being "turned into a bargaining chip in the presidential campaign."

And Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted that a snap "confederation treaty" with Belarus could give more than a boost to Boris Yeltsin - by allowing millions of Belarus citizens to cast their votes for him in the June presidential election. The Communists have promised to give Yeltsin a run for his money this June - but for now, it is Yeltsin who holds the purse strings.