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Integration: The Final Stage Of Disintegration

Washington, March 25 (RFE/RL) -- Even as he condemns the Duma for seeking to reestablish the USSR, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is working to promote a tighter reintegration of the former Soviet space. But Yeltsin appears to be learning that such integration may in fact prove to be the final stage of disintegration.

Just as the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky both pushed Yeltsin toward a more nationalist agenda and allowed him to move in that direction without significant criticism, so too the Duma's vote on March 15 has provided the Russian President with an opportunity to push his own brand of reintegration.

The president of Belarus came to Moscow seeking to explore how a new union between Russia and Belarus might be created, Ukrainian officials have suggested that they are close to signing a friendship treaty with Russia, and Yeltsin has joined Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in calling for a CIS-wide meeting to discuss greater integration of the former Soviet space.

But all these developments may not point in the direction many assume. Instead, they are likely to run into three major obstacles that Moscow has encountered in the past:

First, any reintegration would be expensive for Russia and could even threaten the territorial integrity of Russia itself. When Belarus sought to rejoin last summer, members of the same Duma that has now voted to annul the 1991 dissolution of the USSR publicly suggested that bringing Belarus back would cost Russia too much. At that time, then Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev suggested that Moscow should not be making its policies in this region on the ruble cost alone. Were Russia to expend too many resources trying to retake the former Soviet periphery, it is entirely possible that some on the Russian periphery might exploit the situation.

Second, any reintegration based on genuine, even if unbalanced, agreements will tie Moscow's hands in many key areas. For three years, Yeltsin has rejected the ideas of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev for a closer union in part because Nazarbayev wanted to define the relationship with precision.

Were Moscow's dealings with Almaty or other capitals controlled in that way, these governments would gain predictability and hence a measure of freedom that they do not now possess when conditions are left ambiguous and undefined. For the past three years, Moscow has pursued a policy of frozen instability in the Transcaucasus, keeping things just unstable and undefined enough to be in a position to act as it wants.

And third, because any reintegration likely will involve at the outset only some but not all of the 12 CIS members, Moscow will be forced to behave in ways that attract some of the likely holdouts, such as Ukraine and Turkmenistan, if it hopes to reintegrate the entire space. In that event, Moscow's freedom of action would be limited.

If, on the other hand, Moscow chose not to behave in a way that would attract the others, the very act of reintegrating with a few would mark the final dissolution of the former whole. And any use of force to secure a new union would virtually guarantee that those not included initially would seek and likely obtain assistance from outside powers.

The Duma majority faces the same constraints, even if its members do not now recognize that. And the fact that Yeltsin may learn this lesson sooner than they, suggests he may be able to turn that to his advantage in the upcoming electoral battle. Consequently, even though Yeltsin might like to go much of the way pointed to by the Duma resolution, he is almost certain to be blocked by reality. That is something he, Russia's neighbors and the West should keep in mind when assessing statements emanating these days from Moscow.