Moscow, 8 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - For the last month, trolley bus Number 12 has been reminding Moscow citizens of the close ties between Russia and Belarus, especially between the Russian capital and Minsk. The trolley, traveling Tverskaya street in central Moscow, does not display on its sides the bright advertizements that have become a usual feature in post-Soviet Russia. Instead, passengers are informed that they are about to board a "present to the citizens of Moscow from the President of Belarus, (Alyaksandr) G. Lukaskenka."
Russian Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said yesterday that the presidents of Russia and Belarus will sign a Union Charter at a ceremony in Moscow on May 23.
Sitting in trolley Number 12, Aleksandra, a young bank clerk, says she has "no particular feelings" about the union deal. "I was against it in April, and I did not change my mind during this month," she says. She adds that "unfortunately my disagreement will mean nothing, because nobody has asked my opinion in a popular referendum."
The Charter was to have been signed early this year, but Russia's President Boris Yeltsin backed off at the last moment, and he and Lukashenka signed a scaled-down version of the document April 2. The agreement called for increased cooperation on political, military and economic issues, but stopped short of formally creating a single state, merging Russia and Belarus. Details of the Union were included in a separate Charter, which the two Presidents initialed. Yeltsin then called for the draft to be published and undergo public debate for six weeks before its adoption.
The period allowed for the public discussion is now expiring. Yastrzhembsky said that Yeltsin met yesterday in the Kremlin with Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, to discuss the Charter. Yastrzhembsky said the final text of the Charter should be submitted to both Presidents by next Thursday. He said that if differences over the text remain, Yeltsin and Lukashenka will settle them during their meeting. Following the signing ceremony, the Union agreement must be ratified by each country's Parliament.
Serov and the head of Lukashenka?s administration Mikhail Myasnikovich co-chair the joint Russia-Belarus commission set up after April 2 to summarize the results of the public debate in each country.
Yastrzhembsky quoted Yeltsin as telling Serov that he is satisfied the joint commission's work proceeded in a "constructive atmosphere," and that during the discussion "many interesting ideas" have arisen, to enrich the document.
Yeltsin's words appear to contradict Lukashenka. The Belarusian President had dismissed the discussion as "useless."
Apparently concerned that powerful Moscow politicians, led by First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, might try further to reduce the significance of the draft Charter, Lukashenka said he opposes any changes to the document. He accused Russian media, especially television, of inflicting "irreparable damage" on ties between Russia and Belarus, and dampening Russian public support for the Union. In Russia, integration is popular mainly in Communists and nationalists circles, where many people favor recreating the USSR.
However, our Moscow correspondent says the "public debate" in Russia was decidedly low-key. It went virtually unnoticed for the first two weeks, following April 2.
In mid-April the first opinions of politicians and experts started appearing in Russian media. A number of Russian regional authorities expressed their support for the Union. Communist and nationalists spoke of the economic benefits of integration with "highly qualified and hard-working Belarus," reminding everyone that the country was considered, since Soviet times, essential for the USSR's command economy, and that its input would be essential also in the future.
The discussion culminated during the four-day, May 1 holiday, when communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told a meeting of supporters that "Russia is with you, sister Belarus." Zyuganov's words were followed by a statement of the leader of the pro-democracy "Russia's Democratic Choice of Russia," Yegor Gaidar. Gaidar told a meeting of the Union of journalists that "Lukashenka's authoritarian and anti-democratic regime is dangerous for Russia, because of its instability." He added that "dictators do not last long, and flirting with Lukshenka, Russia will loose the support of his democratic opponents. Those who one day may lead Belarus. How will Russia then explain to them today's moves ?"
Russian observers noticed that Gaidar's words are a visible exception among Russian politicians, even among those who in April pushed successfully for watering down the Union agreement. Across the political spectrum, there is widespread agreement unification with Belarus will eventually be in Russia's interest, particularly as a counterweight to NATO's eastward expansion.
Government officials have been very careful in the language they choose when refering to Lukashenka's human rights record. Some have preferred to concentrate on the dangers of economic integration. They have said that Belarus must first restructure its economy, otherwise integration risks becoming a new burden for Russia's already troubled budget.
Those perceived as reformers in the Russian Government last month appeared more busy fighting to advance market reforms and budget cuts in Russia than dealing with Belarus. The planned reforms face stiff opposition among deputies in the State Duma, and among regional authorities alike.
One of the more vocal critics of the new Cabinet has been the powerful, populist Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. During the last few days, Luzhkov has categorically attacked reformers, notably on Belarus, housing reform and privatization.
Analysts in Moscow have said Luzhkov is often mentioned as a likely contender for Russia's next presidential election, scheduled for the year 2000. In this respect, his statements supporting integration with Belarus are similar to previous political statements on the necessity of considering the Crimean port-city of Sevastopol, in Ukraine, as part of Russia.
Mikhail Berger, economic editor of the daily "Izvestia" said in comments published recently that Luzhkov's populist speeches can be seen as the start of pre-election campaign. According to Berger, Luzhkov's evident approach to positions usually belonging to the Communist and nationalist opposition can be seen as an attempt to lure away a part of the electorate that is not firmly supporting Zyuganov. Observers in Moscow say the "Belarus card" is part of a more complex "influence game" currently splitting the Russian leadership.
In his recent attacks, Luzhkov singled out Gaidar, Chubais and Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovsky as the main enemies of the Russia-Belarus Union. Luzhkov went further, telling a recent gathering of World War II veterans that the three politicians, together with First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov are subject to Western influence.
While observers say Luzhkov's calls for a reassessment of privatization could be explained by his long-standing friction with Chubais, the recognized architect of privatization in Russia, the attacks on Nemtsov came as a surprise for everybody, including Nemtsov himself.
Luzhkov claimed yesterday that in a meeting with Yeltsin he had secured for Moscow an exemption from market-oriented housing reforms that Nemtsov plans to introduce across Russia. In the past, Luzhkov had won an exemption for the capital from the privatization programme.
In an interview with the daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," Nemtsov said that, along with himself and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, Luzhkov had long supported the housing reform outlined in a recent presidential decree. Nemtsov also said that he had no plans to run for president and would not stand in Luzhkov's way.
Nemtsov, and Luzhkov are both mentioned as likely Yeltsin successors. However, Nemtsov added that speculations about the next presidential elections are "a false start," since Yeltsin "is in good health and working quite actively."
Luzhkov has steadfastly denied he is eyeing Yeltsin's post. But observers in Moscow say he is actively picking the core of what could be his campaign team. And a new television program, to be broadcasted nationally with the financial support of Moscow authorities, is due to be launched this Summer.