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Belarus/Russia: Presidents Sign Cooperation Agreement

Moscow, 2 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus today signed in Moscow an agreement calling for increased cooperation on political, military and economic issues.

The document appears to be a general but scaled-down version of a 17 page-long draft treaty approved earlier by Lukashenka and several members of the Russian government.

Yeltsin and Lukashenka also approved guidelines of a more detailed "Charter of the Union," to be prepared by a joint commission and presented for acceptance by the two governments and ratification by the parliaments within several weeks.

The two presidents also signed a memorandum of understanding on the content of the final union treaty. They said the charter would be submitted for public discussion in both countries before its ratification.

The agreement stops short of merging Russia and Belarus. Yeltsin said today at the signing ceremony in the Kremlin that both countries preserve their sovereignty and the union will not create a single state.

Yeltsin also said that integration would bring economic benefits, but Russia and Belarus "do not intend to rush ahead in financial and budgetary spheres." He added that while the countries envisage the creation of a currency union, this is not going to happen any time soon and "there should be no illusion" about this.

Moreover, Yeltsin said that democracy and human rights would provide "the foundation of the future union." Lukashenka last year disbanded parliament after a much-criticized referendum and has repeatedly used force and intimidation to contain opposition. Russia has failed to protest those measures.

Initially, it was expected that Yeltsin and Lukashenka would sign today the full union treaty. But RFE/RL Moscow correspondent says Yeltsin appears to have decided to postpone the move after having come under pressure presumably from liberal and reformist members of the newly formed Russian government.

The agreement was signed following a meeting of the Russia-Belarus Supreme Council. Yeltsin and Lukashenka also met behind close doors for last minute talks. Russian NTV television reported that Yeltsin had hesitated until the end about the wording of the document.

The initial draft was reportedly opposed by several powerful Moscow officials, including first deputies prime ministers Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais. These officials were said to have argued that the process of integration needs further examination. They were reported to have emphasized that Belarus must first restructure its economy, otherwise integration would become a major burden for the Russian economy.

Lukashenka and some more conservative members of the Russian government appear to have hoped for a union treaty. Lukashenka flew to Moscow earlier than scheduled, following a five-hour meeting in Minsk yesterday with Russia's Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin. Rybkin had been sent to Minsk to inform Lukashenka about the problem.

A Russian government official wishing to remain anonymous told RFE/RL correspondent following the signing ceremony that Yeltsin "has made it clear to Lukashenka that he wants integration, but that Belarus politicians will not be in a position to influence Russia's policies."