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Is The Demise Of Belarus In The Offing Now?

Prague, Mar 25 (RFE/RL) - "Somebody has got things mixed up," exclaimed Russian President Boris Yeltsin when asked today about reports that Russia would form a single state with Belarus. There was no question of "forming a single state with Belarus" he said.

But in the minds of many the doubts remain.

The reports of the impending re-unification of Belarus with Russia followed an announcement made two days ago in Moscow by Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that on April 2 he would sign a unity pact with Russia. Lukashenka told the Russian media that a plan for the union had been approved in principle during two days of talks with Yeltsin and the Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Lukashanka said that a draft accord on the issue envisaged the formation of a union of the two states led by a "supreme council" endowed with "very wide powers," and comprising presidents, prime ministers and heads of parliaments of the two countries.

He also said that the two states would have a common budget for some joint programs, an inter-parliamentary congress in which they would be equally represented, and an executive committee that would "in effect became a government."

Lukashenka then added, seemingly as an afterthought, that "Russia and Belarus will retain national sovereignties within the new union."

Commenting on the announcement, Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Medvedev confirmed that talks between Lukashenka and the Moscow leaders focused on integrating the two countries. But he was quick to say that the goal of this process was to bring "a comprehensive rapprochement" between them, rather than to effect a merger.

It would be something akin to the European Union, Medvedev said, with its own anthem, flag, parliament and a budget. But he went on to emphasize that "no unification of the two countries' budgets is anticipated." Medvedev's disclaimer reflected Moscow's concern that any move toward a full integration of Belarus into Russia would necessarily involve considerable economic costs and rather dubious political advantages.

Belarus gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But during the subsequent years, the new country has suffered a major economic decline, with widespread disintegration of its industrial base, plummeting production and financial decline.

No reforms have been planned, and the economy remains basically as it was during the communist era, with state-run industries and collectivized agriculture. The standard of living of the population have been dropping year after year.

Lukashenka was elected president in 1994 on the strength of a promise of re-uniting Belarus with Russia. The pro-Russian sentiments has always been strong in the country, in which about 20 percent of the population is ethnically Russian. Many a Belarusian worker or peasant has seen, and still sees, Russia as the main provider of goods, security and protection.

Last year, an overwhelming majority voted in a referendum to bring about an economic union with Russia, to make Russian an official language in the state and to replace the national flag with an old Soviet-style emblem.

During past months, Belarus entered into a customs union with Russia, granted Moscow leases for military bases and signed an agreement with Russian government renouncing mutual debts.

But the movement toward integration has been slow and many economic agreements have been ineffective. Russia has continued, for example, to sell to Belarus its energy resources, primarily gas and oil, at world prices and not at Russian domestic rates as provided in the customs treaty.

Lukashenka clearly wants to speed things up.

The Belarusian political establishment, which has frequently quarreled with Lukashenka about prerogatives, is unlikely to oppose that move. It consists largely of former communists and bureaucrats.

A budding nationalist movement has been effectively deprived of influence in the country's politics. In the eyes of many observers, and numerous Belarusian intellectuals alike, Belarus has failed to develop a distinct national identity of its own.

But Lukashenka's announcement on re-unification prompted a major public protest in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Tens of thousands were reported to have marched two days ago on the streets decrying the plans of unity. This was the largest public demonstration in Belarus since the country gained independence.

The protest was quickly dealt with by the Belarusian police. But it has signaled that any precipitate steps to rebuild the old Soviet empire around Russia could run into public opposition. That alone might have made the Russian leaders to hesitate on any apeedy measures toward re-unification.

Today,it was announced in Moscow that details about the integrative steps will be determined only after new negotiations. And only after the Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Belarusian leaders agree on the scope of integrative measures within the Commonwealth of Independent States. This is to take place March 29.

But a member of the Belarusian parliament, Mikhail Goryn, already told a Moscow television station two days ago that the new union between Russia and Belarus could herald "the end, or the beginning of the end, of the Belarusian independent state." And he added that "this is also a big defeat for the democratic Russian state. There can be no democracy in an empire."