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How Voluntary Would a New Union Be?

Washington, Apri1 1 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of those former Soviet republics interested in closer relations all have stressed that any new union will be completely voluntary. And Western governments, including the US, have said that any broader and closer grouping of states will be legitimate only if it is formed on a voluntary basis.

But no one in any of the countries involved has defined just what voluntary means in this context.

Already, there are some disturbing signs that what some would call "voluntary," others would label "coerced." Russian officials, for example, routinely insist that the 1940 Soviet incorporation of the three Baltic countries was completely "voluntary." No one - except perhaps those making this claim - would agree with that assessment. In fact as the entire world knows, Moscow used a great deal of force to achieve this "voluntary" joining of the Balts to the USSR.

Even if one dismisses that historical precedent, there are some disturbing signs that the new cooperation agreements among the former Soviet republics may not be all that "voluntary" either.

Many in Moscow openly talk about using force or the threat of force and economic sanctions to get their way. And simply by virtue of its size and the history of the former Soviet Union, Russia is in a position to have what many would call undue influence in any discussions with the former Soviet republics.

Indeed, some both in the region and more generally have argued that the Russian propensity for flaunting its power in this way necessarily means that any agreements between Russia and her neighbors will be less than fully "voluntary."

But there is another aspect of the problem that has attracted relatively little attention up to now. That concerns the ways in which the agreements are reached and the ways in which they are ratified. In a democratic context, procedure is critical. Unfortunately, both the negotiations over such new unions and the ways in which the former Soviet republic leaders have suggested they should be ratified raise some serious questions.

It has long been a principle of international affairs that international agreements should be openly arrived at. But the recent Russian-Belarusian accord hardly met that standard, and the accords between Russia and several of her Central Asian neighbors also appear to fall short in that regard. Not only was a copy of the agreement reached between Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka not immediately published in Minsk, but it appears that it was not even made immediately available to all the members of the Belarusian parliament who were asked to consider it.

More generally, agreements among the CIS countries have often been simply agreements among presidents. One Russian analyst recently suggested that the CIS was in fact a "club of presidents" rather than an organization of countries. Even if new accords are ratified by the respective parliaments, there are questions about just how representative of the population some of these bodies are. And a referendum, which some in the West have suggested should be used, is also subject to pressure and manipulation.

Beyond these considerations, however, there remains a more fundamental one. The constant discussion of reunification of these countries and the ways in which it might be legitimated has the effect of depriving these countries of the very legitimacy that they as members of the international community deserve.

That, in fact, may be the intention of some of the participants in these discussions, but if it is, it is an intention that should be voluntarily opposed.