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Belarus/Russia: Goal Of Union Charter Unclear On Eve Of Signing

Moscow, 21 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - On the eve of the signing of a charter defining details of a Union agreement between Russia and Belarus, no clear view has emerged of what shape the new union might take. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka meet in Moscow tomorrow to solve a number of obstacles still blocking the charter, scheduled to be signed Friday.

Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky yesterday said Yeltsin is confident his meeting with Lukashenka will resolve "fairly quickly" the "two or three issues" that remain to be settled. Yasterzhembsky did not elaborate, but Yeltsin's schedule for tomorrow includes another extremely important meeting, which will surely not allow him to discuss at length differences of views over integration with Lukashenka. Yeltsin is due to chair a meeting of his Defence Council, which could mark the start of much delayed military reform.

Lukashenka said this week that he and Yeltsin should resolve three issues. They concern the extent of the authority of the Union's future institutions; the powers of the head of its governing body, the Supreme Council, as well as its location.

Yeltsin's aide Sergei Shakhrai, who was one of the main initiators of the Union, addressing a "roundtable" of experts in Moscow yesterday, said the main issue still remaining unresolved is "the goal of the Union." He told RFE/RL that in the latest negotiations the Russian delegation "had been instructed to insist that the Supreme Council's decisions be signed by both Presidents," and that "the Supreme Council's Chairman be charged mainly with organizing functions." Shakhrai said the Belarus side had disagreed.

Yeltsin said last week that a complete merger of the two countries would be the ultimate goal of the charter. Lukashenka replied that the Union could not take the form of a federation, since neither country is ready for its creation. He said that for this to happen, the Constitution of each country should be amended through a special referendum. Lukashenka had initially been seeking a supra-national body with powers to make decisions about the Union.

Yeltsin and Lukashenka committed their countries to closer integration in April 1996. The Union charter they are expected to sign in two days should detail how the Union will work. The charter was initially to have been signed early in the year, but Yeltsin backed off at the last moment, and he and Lukashenka signed a scaled-down version of the document April 2.

Monday, hard-liner Lukashenka took a swipe at critics in Moscow who are concerned that he may want to increase his influence in the Kremlin. He did not refer directly to cabinet members -- seen as reformers -- who are reported to be in favor of scaling-back the powers of the Supreme Council.

On Yeltsin's initiative April 2, six weeks of "public debate" in the two countries followed the signing of the watered down Union agreement. The idea of restoring close ties between Russia and Minsk is reported to enjoy broad support in both countries. Russian officials, including Yeltsin, quoted opinion polls carried out by Presidential administration's analysts as saying that more than 75 percent of Russians support unification with Belarus.

However, observers say the "public debate" was mostly an official affair conducted by experts, officials and politicians appearing opposite one another on television screens and newspapers' pages. They often turned the debate into an internal Russian political fight between officials seen as reformers and their foes.

Dmitry Pinsker, a commentator for the political weekly "Itogi" says that as long as Lukashenka remains in power, Moscow is unlikely to support the Union as the integration of two sovereign states. Instead, said Pinsker, Russian officials will likely keep making clear to Lukashenka and other Belarus officials that integration for Moscow will only mean that Belarus should become a part of the Russian Federation.

Yeltsin's comments were followed by declarations of several presidents of Russian republics criticizing the prospect of union with another sovereign state. One of the most vocal critics was Tatarstan's influential President Mintimer Shaimiev, who said his republic "may want to review" its power-sharing agreement with Moscow, "in case an unclear union" will appear.

Discussion on the merits of the planned union at times became heated at yesterday's Moscow "roundtable." Russian political expert Aleksandr Zypko accused Duma deputy Nikolay Gonchar of having inflicted "psychological damage" on many officials in Minsk with his proposal to carry out a popular referendum on the Union. Zypko, who recently visited Berlarus, said Belarus officials interpreted the proposal as a Russian attempt to gain popular support for dismantling Belarus' sovereignty.

Our correspondent reports the attempt of Moscow officials to neutralize Lukashenka and his regime with a federation proposal might prove more difficult than expected.

One of the most outspoken Yeltsin critics, retired General Aleksandr Lebed, who also traveled to Minsk last week and met Lukashenka, said at a press-conference in Moscow yesterday that the Belarusian President is "determined to sign any, even the more sketchy" Union charter Friday. But, according to Lebed, Lukashenka plans to tell Yeltsin tomorrow that, should full federation be proposed, new presidential and parliamentary elections be held in each country to elect new "federal authorities."