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Russia/Belarus: Analysis From Washington--Moscow-Minsk Marriage Unlikely

Washington, 15 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's proposal on Monday that Russia and Belarus unite is unlikely to have the results he ostensibly intends. Indeed, it may even backfire on the Russian president and his putative Belarusian partner, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

While both men have obvious reasons for discussing such an idea, they and their countries have even more compelling reasons now for not proceeding in a direction each has talked about in the past but then rejected.

Boris Yeltsin has three obvious reasons for making this proposal now.

First, as virtually all commentators have noted, the Russian president's suggestion will certainly complicate and might appear likely to slow current Western plans to expand NATO.

Were the two countries to unite, Moscow could move nuclear weapons up to what would then be the Polish-Russian border, something it cannot do now because, unlike Russia, Belarus has signed the nuclear non-proliferation pact as a non-nuclear state.

Second, Yeltsin certainly wants to show that he is very much in charge despite his current hospitalization and is distracting the attention of his own population from their many immediate problems.

Indeed, many Russian politicians dismissed Yeltsin's latest proposal as no more than that. Communist Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the largest fraction in the Russian parliament, said that he found Yeltsin's latest idea "rather strange."

"As soon as the internal situation in the country gets worse," Zyuganov said, "it becomes acceptable to throw in new ideas."

And third, Yeltsin wants now, just as he did when he made this proposal earlier during the election campaign, to tap into Russian nationalism in order to counter his own slide in Russian public opinion.

Belarusian President Lukashenka has three equally obvious reasons for welcoming Yeltsin's latest proposal. The unification of the two countries would allow Lukashenka a chance to escape from his own domestic opposition by allowing him access to a far larger political stage.

It would also give a chance to escape the increasing isolation of his country because of his own efforts to suppress democracy at home. And it might allow him to tap into Moscow's enormously greater financial resources and thus to reverse Belarus' continuing economic slide.

But despite these superficially compelling reasons, each man and even more each country has even more important reasons for not proceeding very far. There are three reasons to think that Yeltsin's proposal for a move toward merger will falter.

First, the reunification of the two countries would cost Moscow an enormous sum of now scarce resources. That is the rock on which Yeltsin's earlier proposal to unite the two Slavic states foundered. If anything, that rock is now far larger than it was three years ago because the Belarusian economy is in even worse shape.

Second, it would have enormous political and cultural costs at home. By reopening the question of just what Russia is and what it means to be a Russian, any unity of the two countries would put yet another obstacle on the road to the democratic transformation of that society.

And third, it would almost certainly be counterproductive in terms of Yeltsin's own foreign policy interests. By taking this step, Yeltsin would be confirming that Russia is a revisionist power, one prepared to challenge the results of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While that might be greeted by some Russian nationalists at home, it would virtually guarantee the destruction of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and any hope that Moscow could limit the planned expansion of NATO.

Those former Soviet republics now in the CIS would almost certainly limit the planned expansion of NATO.

Those former Soviet republics now in the CIS would almost certainly view a Russian incorporation of Belarus as a threat to their own independence and likely move quickly to distance themselves even further from Moscow.

And both the East Europeans and most NATO member states would see such a Russian move as providing yet another argument for NATO expansion. Indeed, many of them might be willing to include more countries sooner. At the very least, few current members would see Russian-Belarusian unity as a reason for backing down on the principle of expansion.

But Lukashenka and the Belarusians also have good reasons for backing away from this idea. First, Russia is unlikely to deliver the financial assistance Minsk hopes for, and Russian politicians will make that very clear long before any talks could begin. That by itself will make unity less attractive.

Second, Lukashenka clearly would like to become a politician in Moscow, but any discussion of unity would quickly show that in such a state, he would be unlikely to be more than a regional boss. Time and again, Lukashenka has indicated that he prefers being president of a country than serving as leader of an oblast.

And third, ever more Belarusians are becoming conscious of their own national identity and the value of being an independent state. Indeed, Yeltsin's proposal and Lukashenka's hasty acceptance immediately sparked protests in Minsk. Incorporating Belarus into Russia would pose control problems for both parts of the new superstate.

For all these reasons, this much ballyhooed movement to merger is likely to slow down rather than speed up. And one sign of this has already appeared.

Immediately after the Russian president's statement was announced, a Yeltsin spokesman indicated that whatever happened, two sovereign governments would be maintained.

Such a comment by itself shows how little rather than how much Yeltsin's latest suggestion actually means.