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Belarus/Russia: Analysis From Washington--A Divisive Call For Unity

Washington, 28 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An agreement between the Russian and Belarusian presidents to move toward the merger of their countries is sending shockwaves through both republics, the other post-Soviet states, and the West as well.

And it is having this effect even though many people in all three places are now dismissing this accord either because they oppose such a new union state or because they doubt that these two former Soviet republics will ever form one.

On Friday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a series of accords in the Kremlin that both men said pointed toward the unification of the two countries into a single state, possibly as soon as mid-1999.

And while they promised that there would be "public discussion" of this idea -- the Russian press even called for a plebiscite -- the two presidents said that they had already agreed to introduce a single currency and common tax system early next year.

Not surprisingly, this announcement has had an immediate impact in the two countries most directly affected. In Russia, reformers have spoken out against this move. On the one hand, they are concerned about the way in which this agreement was reached.

And on the other, they view it as a threat to democracy and free market economics, with many fearful that such a reunification would transform the authoritarian Belarusian president into a major player on the Russian political scene.

That latter possibility - a Lukashenka run for the Russian presidency - has somewhat dampened the enthusiasm of Russian communists and nationalists who otherwise welcome what they see as a restoration of the past and a challenge to NATO and the West.

And consequently, at least some of them may oppose the reunification of the two countries for the same reason they have blocked it earlier: The enormous financial costs unity would impose on Russia itself.

Meanwhile, in Belarus, the impact of the accord has been still more dramatic. Given the extent of Lukashenka's increasingly authoritarian control in Minsk, Belarusian officials have dutifully backed the Yeltsin-Lukashenka deal.

But democratic activists opposed to it clashed with police over the weekend. And the Belarusian Popular Front issued a statement noting that the accord reflects Lukashenka's willingness "to eliminate Belarusian statehood" in order to enhance his power.

This fundamental difference of the opinion sets the stage for ever sharper political combat between Lukashenka and those Belarusians who are committed not only to national independence but to democracy, free markets, and cooperation with the West.

As dramatic as that clash is likely to be in the coming weeks and months, the consequences of the Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord on Russian relations with the other post-Soviet states and with the West are likely to prove far more significant.

The Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord appears certain to presage an expanded effort by Moscow to promote the reintegration of the former Soviet republics. And such a move will almost certainly exacerbate relations within and among them.

Within many of these countries, some will welcome proposals for closer relations, given their current economic difficulties. But there will be many more who will oppose any such moves lest they lead as with Belarus to the extinction of national statehood.

And whatever the outcome in the short term, such domestic conflicts are likely to leave many of the governments involved weakened politically, thus setting the stage for increased Russian influence there despite Moscow's current weakness. But the greatest challenge by far that is posed by the Yeltsin-Lukashenka agreement may be to Western governments: First, it represents a direct challenge to NATO which is now scheduled to include Poland as a member later this spring.

Second, it highlights the continuing influence in Moscow of those interested in revising the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and calls into question Yeltsin's past commitments to oppose any such revision.

And third, by setting the stage for greater conflict among the post-Soviet states as well as between Moscow and the West, this agreement may force Western governments to play a very different role than they would like.

While increased conflict in the region may lead some to advocate a further retrenchment of Western involvement in the region, increased conflict between Moscow and the West would likely have precisely the opposite effect.

And for all these reasons, the Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord appears likely to define the nature of many conflicts in the post-Soviet states during the next year as well as the ways in which all the players will respond.