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Belarus/Russia: Lukashenka Sets Terms For Unity

Prague, 23 January 1996 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka wants his country to unite with Russia. But he also likes to bargain. Or so it seems.

Speaking yesterday on a nationwide radio program, Lukashenka reiterated again his continuing desire to integrate with Russia.

"I am convinced that we (Belarus and Russia) will be together, no matter who resists it," he said.

But Lukashenka also emphasized that "we (Belarus) will not join any state as its region or province. We want equal cooperation." And he pointedly added, in an unmistakable reference to the Chechnya conflict, that Belarusian soldiers must never be involved in any military actions on the territory of Belarus' prospective and/or potential partners.

The statement is puzzling. Could it be that Lukashenka, a populist politician whose policies have long been predicated on Belarus' full and complete integration with Russia, was developing second thoughts about the union? Has he been lately affected by protests voiced by nationalist opposition groups and wants now to mollify their feelings?

None of these hypothetical possibilities appears likely.

Lukashenka has never wavered from the conviction that Belarus is but a part of Russia. He has always been disdainful of his own country as an independent entity. He has consciously rejected its language and has pointedly refused to acknowledge its historical symbolic insignia.

And, he has been supported in those views by a vast majority of the public, which at periodic intervals, has given him support in recurrent referendums. Suffering from a diminished sense of national identity, owing in large part to centuries of Russian and Soviet domination, the Belarusian public seems to regard the union with Russia as ethnically "natural" and economically beneficial. Belarus is a poor country plagued with a rapidly declining economy. Russia provides the main market for its products and is the sole provider of its energy needs.

In a way, Lukashenka's views reflect the views of many of his "compatriots." And he certainly knows that. A clever and populist politician, he could hardly be swayed by arguments put forward by relatively small groups of nationalists, who deplore the prospects of being again swallowed by Russia, or even less numerous economic reformers, who vainly argue for privatization of industry and farms as well as decentralization of decision-making. To accept their views would be almost revolutionary. But revolutions usually bring changes in politics and, eventually, reshuffles in leadership. Lukashenka could hardly have missed that point.

The president loves power. He wants to have more of it. Last year, he acquired a quasi-total control over the country's government, extending his mandate and subjecting both the legislature and the judiciary to his diktat. He is clearly in charge.

This turn of events must have affected his feeling of self-importance. It is said that he now sees himself as a natural leader of the Eastern Slavs. It has also been reported that he muses at times that, following the unification with Russia, he might become the president of that enlarged country.

This feeling of self-importance might have been further enhanced by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's call for unitary progress. In Lukashenka's view, this was but an overdue reaction to his own appeals. And then he met Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, who respectfully agreed to expand cooperation with Minsk. Those signs of recognition, because Lukashenka must have seen them as such, certainly buoyed Lukashenka's vision of himself.

Could it then be that his statement on "conditions" for the union, and his calls for "equality" between unifying "partners" are attempts to project himself as an important political leader in any future association? -- as a leader dictating its terms rather than merely accepting them.

The past experience of Lukashenka's behavior suggests that this is quite possible. Indeed, it is even likely.