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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Toward A More Divisive Union

Washington, 2 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Current efforts by the presidents of the Russian Federation and Belarus to promote a closer union between Moscow and Minsk have sharply divided both countries, exacerbated divisions within the Commonwealth of Independent States, and could lead to tensions between Moscow and the West.

As a result, the limited partnership agreement that Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka are scheduled to initial today seems certain to produce something far less than the union they say they seek.

Both countries have long been divided about the desirability of a new and closer link between the two. And these splits will only deepen during the 30 days of debate over the agreement that officials in both countries have said will take place before any final accord is signed.

In general, democratic reformers in both states have opposed it, while communists and extreme nationalists have embraced it. Consequently, in pushing for this "union," Yeltsin finds himself in curious company. His latest stand is enthusiastically supported by his communist and nationalist opponents and is just as enthusiastically decried by his reformist supporters.

Some of the latter, including newly-appointed deputy premier Boris Nemtsov reportedly are concerned about both the secrecy in which the latest agreement was prepared and the speed of moves toward integration between the two countries that it anticipates.

Others are worried about the direct financial costs to Russia, the rock on which earlier efforts to unify the two Slavic countries foundered. Even government spokesmen suggested these costs could be high. And Duma foreign relations committee chairman Vladimir Lukin said that they could be "dangerous for Russia."

And still a third group of reformers argued that unity with increasingly authoritarian Belarus could undermine Russia's still precarious democracy. Liberal Russian parliamentarian Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, for instance, said that "you cannot talk about negotiating integration with a state where there is political repression."

Meanwhile in Belarus, Lukashenka continues to rely precisely on the most authoritarian institutions and groups as he promotes closer ties with Russia, even as his country's democrats protest in the streets and increasingly find themselves in jail.

The Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord is also increasing divisions among the already divided CIS countries. Many leaders of the non-Russian countries are clearly worried that Yeltsin's push for unity with Belarus presages a future Russian effort to embrace them as well.

They are especially likely to draw such conclusions because that is precisely the road map for Russia's future that Andrannik Migranyan and Konstantin Zatulin lead out in a report they prepared for the Russian leadership and then published anonymously in last Wednesday's "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

Other officials in the CIS countries are increasingly worried by Moscow's opposition to their efforts at interstate cooperation even as Russia moves to create its own special ties within the Commonwealth states.

Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, for example, suggested that the Russian-Belarusian union was "absolute nonsense," adding that "this is the way to the destruction of the CIS."

And yet a third group of CIS country leaders in this region is disturbed by the broader implications of Yeltsin's apparent adoption of the Russian nationalist agenda, a shift in his position that many fear will lead Moscow to adopt a harsher line toward them.

But perhaps the most fateful result of the pursuit of a Moscow-Minsk union is likely to be its implications for relations between Moscow and the West.

On the one hand, a Yeltsin-Lukashenka agreement on closer ties between the two countries highlights the potential for Russian mischief in the region that East European countries seeking to join NATO have routinely pointed to.

That is because Lukashenka has routinely insisted that uniting the two countries was the best possible response to any expansion of the Western defense alliance.

For this reason, if none other, the latest moves undercut the very diplomacy that Moscow has sought to conduct.

But on the other, Yeltsin's support for this accord in the face of reformist opposition in Russia once again raises the question of just where Yeltsin's own sympathies lie.

About the only defense Russian reformers have been willing to give Yeltsin for his latest move is to suggest that the Russian president has tacked to the right in order to undercut the support that the communists and nationalists now enjoy and thus to enhance his own. But even they do not sound entirely convinced by their own arguments.

And because the attitudes of Russian reformers toward Yeltsin often have been a bellwether for the attitudes of Western governments, the latter too may be increasingly unconvinced that Yeltsin's latest move is only a tactic.

Indeed, some Western leaders may even become convinced that the Russian president, who at the recent Helsinki summit advertised himself as a newly energized reformer, is anything but the man they thought he was. Moreover, to the extent that they conclude that Yeltsin is thus unreliable, they are likely to adopt a somewhat different approach toward Moscow as a whole.

But precisely because such a Moscow-Minsk union would have such negative consequences all around, it is virtually certain not to take place any time soon, regardless of what the two presidents say today.