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Belarus/Russia: Union Charter Published, But Public Discussion Unlikely--An Analysis

Moscow, 9 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The average Moscow reader -- wanting to see the text of a controversial union charter between Russia and Belarus -- had an hard time in the Russian capital today. The text of the charter outlining the integration mechanism between Russia and Belarus was, as expected, published in Russian newspapers. But, according to tradition, it was published only in two state-controlled papers.

"We don't sell those two papers anymore. Nobody buys them," our Moscow correspondent was told by several vendors selling dailies at major news stands in downtown Moscow.

A month of public discussion is to follow the charter's publication.

But, 25-year-old bank employee Oleg, reading the financial daily "Kommersant" near a newsstand, summed up the views of several people. In Soviet times, he said, "so-called public discussions on all kinds of questions were carefully directed by Communist party members in working places." He added that citizens no longer feel their opinions are valued "if anything less than a referendum is organized on such a controversial issue."

The charter, signed last week in Moscow by Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and by Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is part of packet of documents forming a controversial draft union agreement. Beside the charter, the two presidents also signed a scaled-down Union Treaty and a memorandum of mutual understanding on the adoption of the charter.

The signing of watered-down documents followed harsh criticism, and last-minute maneuvering among members of the Government with strong misgivings that union -- with smaller and poorer Belarus -- could harm Russia's market reforms and give a say in Russian affairs to authoritarian, pro-Communist Lukashenka.

Following the signing of the documents, Yeltsin publically tried to calm fears. He promised public discussion before adoption of the charter. And in a radio address, he said the union charter could be revised to take public opinion into account. Yeltsin's radio address followed several days of unfavorable commentaries in the Russian media about the consequences of integration with Belarus.

Genuine public debate seems as unlikely -- as continued debate among Russian politicians seems certain.

Presidential aide Georgy Satarov was quoted today as saying he expects substantial changes to be made to the charter.

One of the main points in question -- and feared by those drawing the label of "liberals" -- concerns decisions taken by the highest Union body, the Supreme Council. The Council will be comprised of Yeltsin and Lukashenka, as well as by heads of Governments, Parliament Chairmen and an Executive Secretary. But the charter -- unlike the first draft -- says only the two Presidents will hold the rotating presidency of the Council.

And Satarov said it is clear from amendments, already made to the text, that decisions taken by the Supreme Council will not have compulsory character for both countries. This is a major difference in comparison with the first draft, and it is aimed at reassuring Russian critics that Lukashenko would not be given the right to impose his will on Russia.

Other politicians favor a popular referendum on charter provisions.

The chairman of Russia's Social Democratic party, Aleksandr Yakovlev, told "Kommersant daily" that a referendum is necessary, otherwise no public discussion will take place. He said the Communist-dominated Parliaments of the two countries will simply take their predictable decision on issues.

The former head of Yeltsin's administration, Sergei Filatov, said a referendum is "the only constitutional way of debating the issue."

But Communist members of Russia's State Duma disagree.

Deputy Vladimir Semago called nationwide discussion "sheer demagogy," and said the decision on integration should be taken only "by persons delegated by the people," such as parliamentary deputies.

The Duma was expected to discuss the issue during its plenary session today. But deputies voted against including on the agenda any question on integration between Russia and Belarus. Interfax news agency reports debate was dropped after it was clear that some deputies would propose a referendum on integration issues.