Prague, 25 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka wants his country to integrate with Russia, but he also insists on preserving a modicum of autonomy.
Last week, Lukashenka told a joint session of the Belarusian Parliament that ties with Russia would be expanded and strengthened. But he also emphasized that "Belarus has always been and will be an independent, sovereign state. It will never be a province of another country."
Lukashenka amplified these remarks in talking with reporters this weekend by criticizing some Russian views on integration and hinting that he would propose his own concept.
Specifically, Lukashenka rejected a suggestion, presumably made by an unnamed "group of State Duma deputies," that "made Belarus a constituent territory of the Russian Federation, with the Belarusian president appointed simultaneously a governor of the Belarusian province and a vice president of the Russian Federation." Lukashenka judged this suggestion "unacceptable."
Lukashenka also opposed a concept, which he ascribed to the Russian government, of anchoring the integrative process in a supra-national legislature. The Interfax agency quoted him as saying "why there is no mention of any other supra-national body, such as a government, that must also be set up."
Instead, Lukashenka said that he would like to see "a union of equal republics based on the one-republic-one-vote principle." This model, the Belarusian president said, was similar to that prevailing in the European Union, though, he added, "it would take into account the experience of the Soviet Union in the military, economic and political areas."
There is no secret of Lukashenka's nostalgia for the Soviet "experience." He was the only Belarusian Supreme Soviet deputy who voted against the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But with passing years, the appreciation of his own position as head of a "sovereign" state seems to has evolved a little. Lukashenka still insists that integration with Russia is the priority for his government. But he repeatedly defends Belarusian "independence" as well.
It could be that this is directed at appeasing various nationalist opposition groups. These are vocal but relatively ineffective. The majority of the Belarusian population appears thoroughly "sovietized" and "russified" after several decades of Moscow-centered, Soviet domination.
But equally important seems Lukashenka's realization that any true union with Russia would leave him with a politically insignificant position of an administrator of a minor Russian province, irrespectively of titles given to him at the time of the unification. One does not give up easily the presidency of a country for a governorship of a province. Lukashenka, who is nobody's fool and proved himself to be a clever and effective politician, certainly understands this well.
Next week Lukashenka is to meet Russia's President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. He says that he would use the occasion to argue his concept of the union. Lukashenka also plans to discuss the issue with the leaders of the Russian parliament and with Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
Last month, Yeltsin proposed that Russia and Belarus hold a referendum on integration "in one form or another."