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Russia And Belarus Tighten Military Cooperation

Prague, May 15 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Belarus yesterday signed a series of agreements tightening their military cooperation. Their main objective is to further the integration of the two states into a single military and political unit.

The agreements include accords on developing joint studies on regional security issues, and plans for formulating common defense policy. They also call for cooperation between military industries in the two countries and standardization of armaments.

Following the signing, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said yesterday at a press conference in Moscow that the agreements had been reached "within the framework of the Treaty on Collective Security of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)."

Russia has been working for months to streamline military cooperation among CIS countries. Moscow has already held talks on the issue with defense officials from Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Talks with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are scheduled for forthcoming weeks.

The results have been mixed so far, because some CIS members appear wary of Moscow's preponderant influence over defense matters. But this is not the case with Belarus.

Belarus is, without a doubt, a prime candidate for re-integration with Russia. But it also seems to serve as a precursor of a more general and broad orientation of Moscow's policies.

Indeed, Grachev used the occasion of the signing to emphasize some of Moscow's long-standing military concerns, most notably those related to NATO eastward enlargement.

"We are following closely the process of possible expansion of NATO, and will take certain measures if that process becomes a reality," Grachev said at the press conference. And he went on to express a particular concern over the prospect of Poland and Lithuania joining the western alliance.

Such a development, Grachev said, would have "strategic significance" for Russia. It could create "certain difficulties for the Kaliningrad defense region," he said. And added that "if our recommendations are not taken into account, and if no new routes of cooperation are found between Russia and NATO, we will take steps in the military sphere of the western region, including strengthening troop formation there."

It appears that Grachev was talking about moving troops within Russia proper and not between Russia and Belarus. He was quick, in fact, to say that "the expansion of Russian-Belarusian military cooperation should not be seen as a response to NATO expansion to the east."

But could a movement of Russian units into Belarus be excluded?

There is no secret that the two countries' military already closely cooperates. There are 18 Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles in Belarus, and they are guarded by Russian soldiers. Since the beginning of last April, Belarusian and Russian air defense units have maintained joint operations. Last month (April 2), the leaders of the two states signed an accord on eventual institutional and political integration.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made it very clear on many occasions that he intends fully and completely to integrate his country with Russia. He is determined to do so despite growing public protests.

In fact, Lukashenka is resolved not merely to ignore those protests, but also to put them down. Participants in the last month's mass demonstration (April 26) against his pro-Russian policy were beaten by the police, and many of them were punished by short prison terms.

Several are still in detention, and two are on hunger strike to protest their detention. There was another protest yesterday, when several thousand people marched in Minsk demanding the release of the detainees.

Also yesterday, Belarusian police briefly detained Polish Solidarity labor union leader Marian Krzaklewski, and eventually deported him back to Poland. Krzaklewski was in Minsk at the invitation of the Belarusian Free Trade Union. This union was suspended by Lukashenka, following criticism of his economic policies. Polish Foreign Ministry yesterday protested Krzaklewski's detention. The Minsk government has so far ignored that protest.

Finally, seven Ukrainian nationalists have been charged by Belarus with public order offenses resulting from their participation in the April 26 demonstration against Lukashenka's pro-Russian policies.

It seems that public protests are likely to continue. But so is Belarus' movement toward integration with Russia.