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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Playing The Belarusian Card

Washington, 6 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Speculation is growing that Russian President Boris Yeltsin may be getting ready to "play the Belarusian card" by uniting his country and Belarus as a response to the possible eastward expansion of NATO.

The reasons for the rising tide of such predictions in the press are easy to give: On the one hand, Russian officials have hinted that Yeltsin may raise the issue of a referendum to join the two countries together in his speech to the Duma today.

And on the other, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, himself an ardent advocate of Russian-Belarusian unity, is due in Moscow on Friday.

But while Yeltsin may win some political points by floating this idea, there are powerful reasons to think that both he and his putative Belarusian partner will ultimately decide not to seek the complete reunification of their two countries.

Some of these reasons lie in the domestic politics of Russia and Belarus. But the most compelling reasons against reunification are to be found in the foreign policy arena.

Many Russians would like to reabsorb Belarus and possibly other former Soviet republics if they could do so at no or little cost. Indeed, the building of such a new superstate is a regular feature of Russian nationalist rhetoric.

Last month for example, Georgiy Tikhonov, the chairman of the Duma Committee for Relations with the CIS and with Compatriots Abroad, told a Moscow newspaper that Russia and Belarus would achieve "complete unification" sometime soon.

Tikhonov added that this would be the first step toward the reassembly of the lands of "Great Mother Russia."

But despite this bombastic language, even Russian nationalists have blanched at the costs of reincorporating Belarus into a single Russian state. And those costs would be high.

Belarus has not made the progress even Russia has made toward economic reform. As a result, the Russian people would be compelled to pay far more relatively than the Western Germans have paid for the incorporation of the former communist East.

At the same time, there are important reasons to think that Belarus will not take the final step toward reunification with Russia.

Not only do Belarusians know that Moscow is not willing to bail them out of their current predicament -- as many earlier had expected -- but Belarusian leaders, including Lukashenka, have no interest in being reduced to regional officials within a larger state.

Lukashenka likes being president, and he is not going to be president of any country other than Belarus.

Consequently, despite all the current talk, the two countries are likely to remain two countries because of the domestic situation in each.

But it is in the realm of foreign policy that the greatest obstacles to such a new union exist.

Threatening to form a new union may be helpful to Moscow's current goals. After all, many Western analysts are already saying that NATO should perhaps slow down its eastward growth lest Moscow be provoked into retaking Belarus.

But if the threat is useful to Moscow, the action itself would likely be anything but.

Not only would the process of reincorporation be anything but pretty, but such a revision of the international map would inevitably frighten Russia's other neighbors, making Moscow's relations with them more difficult.

Moreover and more importantly, such a Russian move would also inevitably lead many in the West to conclude that Moscow remains a revisionist power, one that must be contained by force rather than included in Western institutions.

And as a result, ever more countries in Eastern Europe would press for inclusion in NATO, and ever more leaders in NATO countries would look with sympathy on such applications.

For these reasons then, Moscow and Minsk are likely to talk a lot about unity this week, but neither seems likely to be willing just yet to play the Belarusian card for keeps.