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Russia/Belarus: Yeltsin Proposes Union With Belarus

Prague, 14 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday proposed a series of steps aimed at a full merger between Russia and Belarus. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressed delight. But the proposal remains clouded in uncertainties, prompting doubts about its scope and the timing of its implementation.

According to Sergei Yastrzhembsky, spokesman for the Russian president, Yeltsin said in a letter to Lukashenka that the two countries should consider calling a referendum on their union. Yeltsin was said to have specifically proposed creating a single government controlling a joint budget with common currency and unified fuel-and-energy systems.

Lukashenka immediately accepted the proposal. Speaking yesterday at the inauguration of the Council of the Republic, the upper house of a new legislative assembly that had been set up in the aftermath of the recent referendum and is packed with Lukashenka's supporters, the Belarusian president said that he was ready for the union with Russia. "This is our baby, mine and the Russian President," he said, adding that "we should promote this process and implement it."

But the proposal itself is far from clear. Yeltsin is said to have stopped short of providing the time-frame for the referendum. Furthermore, he is said to have suggested that the two countries set up "a relatively developed system of administrative bodies" (Washington Post), and that they "harmonize their economic policies" (Liberation). Considering the chasm that exists between the Russian administrative and economic systems, which have been subject to extensive reforms, and those of Belarus that are rooted in the authoritarian command method of decision-making, those conditions make the prospect of unification relatively distant.

The proposal was unexpected. Last March, Yeltsin ruled out any move toward "forming a single state with Belarus." And while the two countries signed in April a "unity pact," which envisaged close cooperation, the movement toward administrative or economic integration has been slow and largely ineffective.

In the mind of many foreign and domestic observers, the 1996 pact might have been prompted by immediate political considerations -- Yeltsin was running for re-election and needed nationalist support -- rather than strategic and political will. Moscow was said to have been opposed to any real integration with Belarus, fearing it would be a drain on the Russian economy.

Why then to propose now a referendum on the merger under those conditions? The answers vary. The most frequently heard is that the proposal was a calculated response to NATO's plans to expand in the East. The Russia-Belarus merger would inevitably raise Western fears of a Russian military build-up on the border with Poland, a likely candidate for an early entry into the Western Alliance. This, in turn, could prompt an increase in tension in that part of Europe -- something dreaded by the West -- and could even lead to the creation of a new political division in Europe, in case Poland is accepted into NATO. The prospect of such a division has long been used by Moscow as an argument again the expansion plans.

The linkage between the proposed merger and the NATO issue has been strongly hinted by Russian politicians. "Real unification between Russia and Belarus would be the most effective answer to NATO's expansion," Yeltsin's close and trusted aide Sergei Shakhrai told reporters yesterday.

But, could one assume that the halting of the expansion plans would stop integrative trends between Russia and Belarus? After all, Russia has long exercised special rights in Belarus. It maintains military bases there and its Border Troops and customs agents play a major role in controlling Belarus' frontiers.

It is Belarus' only supplier of energy, it provides the main market for its products and it has a major say in the formation of its policies. Both Lukashenka and a large section of the Belarusian political establishment have been supporters of full integration with Russia. Most of the ordinary public seems to share this view. It is unlikely that any change in NATO's plans would affect this symbiotic relationship.

And then, there is a possibility that the announcement of the Yeltsin letter sent a different, more political, message. With the President seemingly incapacitated by illness, and in the atmosphere of a renewed political agitation among his potential rivals, the announcement clearly suggested that Yeltsin is active, that he is capable of new policy initiatives and that he still is in charge.

Be that as it may, the letter has already affected Belarusian politics. While Lukashenka and his supporters were expressing joy, the opposition expressed dissatisfaction. Belarusian Popular Front activist Yury Khadyka told a Russian newspaper (Sevodnya) yesterday that the letter was prompted by considerations of Russian internal politics and "does not take into account the true state of affairs in Belarus."

Belarus has been torn by conflicts between Lukashenka and both legislative and judiciary institutions. Lukashenka emerged victorious in a recent referendum that gave him considerable and unrestricted powers. But the opposition still exists, and it is likely that it may grow as economic problems are certain to affect Lukashenka's popularity.

Lukashenka's policies focus on the determined drive to unite with Russia. It has been a popular approach, supported by many people in the opposition. Their dislike of the President and his methods could, however, affect their position. The likely consequence would be the growth of nationalistic sentiments even among those who now support the union with Russia. Shakhrai told reporters that this year gives unique possibilities for the merger between Russia and Belarus. It could be that he thought that after this year it might be too late for that or, at least, that the move could become more difficult and costly.

Finally, Poland, the country most immediately affected by the planned merger showed little excitement. Polish Defense Ministry spokesman Marian Kowalewski told a Warsaw newspaper (Gazeta Wyborcza) today that Yeltsin's announcement brought little that was new. "It is not clear in what direction the situation is going to develop," said Kowalewski, adding that the Russia-Belarus integration "may still indicate that there will be more stability in the region."

Yesterday, the Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights, suspended Belarus' status as a "special guest." The Council said that Belarus failed to meet democratic standards.