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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Pushing Belarus Away

Washington, 16 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's suggestion that he favors the ultimate merger of his country and Belarus has had what for many must be an unexpected result: It has prompted the authorities in Minsk to declare in the strongest terms yet that they will never accept such a merger or even allow the statehood of their country to be "placed in doubt."

On Wednesday, Yeltsin said on Russian television that he sought the ultimate merger of the two Slav republics into a single country. Yeltsin's comments came at the end of a six-week-long discussion about closer relations between Moscow and Minsk and only one week before he and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are to sign an accord on that subject.

But Yeltsin's statement, however popular it may have been in Russia itself, has already had the effect of making any moves in that direction that much less likely.

On Thursday, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Khvostov told reporters that he sees no possibility of such a merger of the two states into one and that "under no circumstances will the statehood of Belarus be placed in doubt."

Khvostov's remarks echo those of Lukashenka himself who said earlier in the discussion period that he and his government would never permit the absorption of Belarus into the Russian Federation as simply that country's northwestern province. But the vehemence of Khvostov's remarks and the fact that he made them on the heels of Yeltsin's statement are striking.

More than that, they are an example of a much broader process that is taking place across the territory of the former Soviet Union. The harder officials in Moscow push for reintegration, the more the countries around Russia's periphery will resist both on their own and through the establishment of new ties with each other and with countries in the West.

But at the same time, Khvostov's remarks do not end the process of a drawing together of Minsk and Moscow. The Belarusian government is increasingly isolated both from its own people and from the international community. And no one statement by its deputy foreign minister can solve either problem.

On Wednesday, several hundred Belarusians demonstrated in Minsk to protest Lukashenka's drive toward greater authoritarianism and closer ties with Russia. Carrying signs reading "No to Slav Fascism," the demonstrators called on their government to change both its domestic and foreign policies.

Unfortunately, many Belarusian opposition figures have been harrassed, arrested, or driven into exile as Lukashenka has sought to prevent any challenge to his dictatorial rule.

And on Thursday, the respected Soros Foundation closed down its operations in Belarus after the Lukashenka government levied an illegal $3 million fine on this non-profit group. The foundation's departure means that there now are virtually no Western institutions left in Belarus.

Unless that changes, Lukashenka may ultimately conclude that he has no way out but to continue to play to Russian interests in closer ties, even if he does not himself want to go all the way and dissolve the state of which he is president.

But both the protests in the streets of Minsk and now the statement of Belarusian deputy foreign minister Khvostov indicate that it is premature to write off Belarusian statehood and independence. Even more, Yeltsin's statement and Khvostov's reaction suggest why the integration many in Moscow seek across the former Soviet state is ever less likely to take place.