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Belarus/Russia: Analysis From Washington--Between Integration And Disintegration

Washington, 13 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's current drive to integrate his country with Russia is dividing his own society, highlighting its differences with Moscow, and further isolating Belarus from the West.

Long an advocate of closer ties between Belarus and the Russian Federation, Lukashenka recently has stepped up his campaign on this issue.

Last Friday, for example, he met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. The two said they would seek to speed up moves toward closer integration of their countries, a declaration they repeated on Tuesday.

This week, Lukashenka hosted in Minsk a joint Belarusian-Russian parliamentary assembly at which he and a series of Russian speakers called for the unification of the two former Soviet republics.

On April 2, the first anniversary of the unity pact signed by Yeltsin and Lukashenka, a bilateral commission overseeing integration is scheduled to meet in Moscow. And on April 22, the joint parliamentary assembly is to meet again to discuss the same issue.

All these moves have led some observers in Moscow, Minsk and the West to conclude that some new steps toward integration between the two countries are imminent. But Lukashenka's campaign may in fact have just the opposite effect.

First, his moves have repeatedly sparked protests in Belarus itself. On Monday, for example more than 4,000 Belarusians assembled to protest Lukashenka's efforts and the arrival of the Russian parliamentarians.

Carrying signs reading "Integration Equals Occupation" and "Long Live Independent Belarus!" the demonstrators burned an effigy of Lukashenka carrying a sign reading "Friend of Russia."

Police in Belarus arrested some 100 people, including leaders of the country's opposition parties. And the authorities subsequently raided the offices of several of these parties.

But as in the past so too now, this latest Lukashenka crackdown may actually spark more demonstrations rather than calm the situation.

Second, Lukashenka's efforts have had the unintended consequence of highlighting just how far apart Minsk and Moscow are on the question of integration.

While both capitals give lip service to the idea, each has its own ideas on just what it would mean.

Lukashenka's calls for a common currency and common citizenship, for example, have received little support from Moscow.

On the one hand, with the exception of some nationalist lawmakers, few Russian officials are prepared to absorb the costs that bringing Belarus into the ruble zone would entail.

And on the other, some Russian officials have expressed concerns about the impact a common citizenship arrangement might have on the control of organized crime.

Further, while Lukashenka's repressive approach may win him support from some Russians, it is likely to repell others.

Yeltsin, for example, would be unlikely to second the statement of Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, that the demonstrations in Minsk are "an echo of the West, which hates our integration."

But even more than that, Lukashenka himself routinely acknowledges that Russia is not really interested in a union of the two states.

On Tuesday, he said that "Russia is not ready" to agree to "a union following the formula of two states, two voices."

Indeed, the Belarusian leader suggested, Russia would now agree to union only if Belarus again became "the north-western region" of Russia, an arrangement "the Belarusian people will not agree to."

As if in reply to these suggestions, the joint parliamentary assembly on Wednesday rejected a resolution calling for transforming the relationship between the two countries into a federation.

And third, Lukashenka's drive for integration and the repression he has visited upon his own people is increasingly isolating his country from the West.

Lukashenka clearly relishes this, at least in part. In his speech on Tuesday, for example, he said that his country would "answer" any expansion of NATO by forming "a Beijing-Moscow-Minsk axis."

But this isolation from the West is beginning to have real costs. This week, the United States government, citing human rights abuses in Belarus, suspended a $39 million aid program to Minsk. That money was to have been used to dismantle the last vestigates of certain Soviet-era weapons systems there.

The combination of growing popular unhappiness with Lukashenka's program, increasing strains in Minsk's ties with Moscow, and growing isolation from the West could make the words of one Belarusian opposition leader prophetic.

On Wednesday, Vyacheslav Sivchyk, the secretary of the Belarusian People's Front, said that Lukashenka now fears "a political spring in Belarus," a season that could threaten both his policy of rapprochement with Russia and much else besides.