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Western Press Review: The Strange Courtship Of Russia And Belarus

Prague, 3 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today focuses on Moscow, where Russia and Belarus yesterday signed a cooperation accord committing them to closer ties. One newspaper also takes a moment to review a new book by Russia's chief architect of economic reforms, Yegor Gaidar.

Several news analysts look at Russian president Boris Yeltsin's signing of the accord between Moscow and Minsk yesterday as a gesture motivated as much by his desire to placate domestic critics as by desire for a closer relationship with Belarus.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Yeltsin may want to enhance his nationalist credentials

John Thornhill, Moscow correspondent for the British newspaper, writes in an analysis today that even as Yeltsin signed "an outline union treaty" with Belarus, he emphasized that it "did not impinge on each country's sovereignty...(and) doused suggestions of a full monetary union" with Minsk, which has been slow to embrace market reforms.

Examining why Yeltsin signed the accord when, as Thornhill says, senior Russian ministers have repeatedly expressed concern at the economic consequences of integrating Belarus, the writer notes that "Kremlin hardliners have been pushing the idea of a union with Belarus as Russia's most effective response to NATO's enlargement plans ... Yeltsin may have gone along with these plans to enhance his nationalist credentials after failing to halt the alliance's expansion at last month's Helsinki summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton."

WASHINGTON POST: Belarus is the most repressive and least democratic nation in Europe

An analysis today calls Yeltsin's signing of the cooperation agreement with Belarus "a sop to Russians nostalgic for Slavic unity and Soviet grandeur."

Moscow correspondent Lee Hockstader warns, however, that if the agreement is "a modest step toward (Russia's) swallowing of its neighboring republic of Belarus and its 10 million people ... it could prove a costly meal for Moscow." He says that Belarus "is widely considered the most repressive and least democratic nation in Europe" and that its economy "nearly untouched by market reforms is also among the most backward on the Continent."

But despite such drawbacks, says the writer, Yeltsin "evidently hopes the prospect of a merger with Belarus will polish his image as a steward of Russian power and mute his Communist and nationalist enemies." Hockstader concludes: "by extending Moscow's influence some 500 kilometers west, (the new accord) ... supplies Yeltsin with a symbolic response to the planned eastern expansion of NATO, which Russia's political elite sees as a humiliation."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: The republics' hunger for full independence is as strong as ever

An editorial today says the signing of the accord with Minsk is part of a larger effort by the Kremlin to strengthen its hand in the face of NATO by trying to revive -- at least in some measure -- the old power block of the Soviet Union.

The paper says: "After accepting the inevitability of NATO expansion at the Helsinki summit, Yeltsin went home to try to strengthen an alliance of his own creation, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)." But the paper adds that Yeltsin's efforts failed and that except for Russia and Belarus, no former republics of the Soviet Union want to be part of a stronger multilateral grouping. The editorial continues: "Yeltsin's Moscow summit with heads of the 12 former Soviet republics that make up the CIS ... demonstrated beyond question that the hunger for full independence is still as strong as ever in the former republics." The paper says Moscow is wasting its energies trying to "restore the empire of the czars and Bolsheviks" and risks diverting itself from "the truly productive task of building Russia itself into a modern European nation."

The paper concludes: The CIS republics "will bring their business back to Moscow happily when they are attracted by Russia's development into a prosperous and liberal-minded society."

LIBERATION: Yeltsin wants to be remembered as a rebuilder

The French paper says that Yeltsin signed the cooperation accord with Belarus because he genuinely wants to reassemble at least part of the Soviet Union he once split apart by emphasizing Russian independence.

A news analysis says today that to explain Yeltsin's decision to sign the accord despite the reservations of his own team of liberal advisors, "many observers say Yeltsin had a hidden motive." The paper continues: "now in his second and final term (as Russian President), Yeltsin wants to be remembered by History not only as the man who buried the Soviet Union but also as a rebuilder ... (and) that makes him ready even to take a chance on (Belarus president) Alyaksandr Lukashenka."

HANDELSBLATT: Yeltsin has hobbled Lukashenka's ambitions

A commentary in the German paper lauds Yeltsin for curbing Lukashenka's ambitions. The paper says that "Europe was saved on Wednesday from political misfortune ... Lukashenka, who is inflamed with the possibility of being Great Russia's new president, stayed in Minsk and did not move to Moscow."

The paper continues: "He still has to wait for his ardently desired position as Supreme Commander of an army with atomic weapons and a huge security apparatus ... and he may have to keep waiting for a long time." Handelsblatt concludes that "Yeltsin has hobbled Lukashenka's ambitions, and Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics can thank him for that."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The root of Russia's troubles is three-quarters of a century of Communist power

Turning to the reform process in Russia, one paper today takes time to review a new book by the chief architect of Russia's market reforms, Yegor Gaidar.

The British paper says that Gaidar's memoirs, entitled "Days of Defeats and Victories" mixes personal reminiscences and economic arguments to rebut his critics. Noting that Gaidar is accused by millions of Russians of "unleashing the snarling dogs of capitalism on his unsuspecting country ... by liberalizing prices and selling its corporate jewels and natural resources at pawnshop prices" the paper says he persuasively defends his policies.

According to the paper, Gaidar's "most convincing theme is that the root cause of Russia's troubles remains the legacy of three-quarters of a century of Communist power which deformed the economy and atomised the people ... (and that) any government left with such an inheritance inevitably faced a choice between 'the catastrophic and the very bad'."

The paper notes that Gaidar argues "countries such as Poland, which successfully implemented shock therapy, have seen a swift resumption of economic growth, while countries like Russia which have pursued more gradual reform have seen their public finances collapse as the economy continues to contract, leaving them unable to pay their pensioners."