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Belarus/Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Increasingly Divisive Union

Washington, 28 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts by Moscow and Minsk to create a new union between the Russian Federation and Belarus are not only transforming the meaning of the Commonwealth of Independent States but also reducing its importance for an increasing number of its members.

Today (Wednesday) Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is scheduled to meet Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow to discuss the creation of a common union state including both of the former Soviet republics.

Prior to his departure for the Russian capital, Lukashenka said he hoped to make more progress toward that union during these meetings, "the more so since international events and developments within our two states are prompting us to iron out the currently existing problems."

Russian officials have given some indication that they are ready for a new push for closer Russian-Belarusian ties. On Monday, Vladimir Putin, the secretary of the Russian National Security Council, said unification of the two countries was now "a strategic task" for both sides. And Russia's Minister for CIS Affairs Boris Pastukhov said an agreement on confederation between the two could be ready by June 1.

And on Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told the Russian military newspaper "Red Star" that Moscow and Minsk have agreed to form a joint regional group of armed forces. One aspect of this accord concerns cooperation between the two countries in regulating the export of materials and technologies that can be used to develop weapons of mass destructive and delivery systems.

Even if the Lukashenka-Primakov talks do not lead to the rapid unification of the two countries, they are contributing both to the redefinition of the CIS and to a reduction in its importance as a political organization.

By highlighting Moscow's continuing willingness to conclude special agreements with only some of the CIS states and particularly with the authoritarian leader of Belarus, these talks have made many post-Soviet states increasingly reluctant to cooperate with the Russian Federation on any but economic issues.

That trend was evident in two new developments this week. On Tuesday, the CIS held a special interstate forum to discuss the restructuring of the CIS in the direction of a free trade area. The commonwealth's Interstate Economic Committee announced that the CIS will now focus "first and foremost on the development of economic integration, the growth of national economies and an increase in the standards of living."

While a move in that direction would represent a success for an institution that has known few of them in the past, it would represent a rather dramatic reduction in the ambitious political and security goals that Russian President Boris Yeltsin and some others have had for the CIS in the past.

But perhaps even more significant as an indication of future developments was the announcement last weekend that Uzbekistan has formally joined the GUAM regional association that had consisted of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

The new grouping is to be called GUUAM. Announced in Washington during the NATO summit, it includes five of the 12 CIS member states. As such, it represents more than just a regional grouping of states committed to the development of a new east-west transportation corridor that bypasses the Russian Federation and hence Moscow's control. It also shows as did recent military maneuvers in Georgia involving Azerbaijan and Ukraine but not the Russian Federation that ever more countries in the region are looking away from Moscow, forming their own bilateral and multilateral relationships, and thus promoting their own national security.

Moscow's ongoing conversations about unity with Belarus, particularly given Russian and Belarusian calls for some kind of political unity with Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, simultaneously make such arrangements more plausible for more members of the CIS and thus further reduce its importance in the foreign and domestic life of these countries.

And as has been the case in the past, yet another stage in the disintegration of the former Soviet space is being hastened by attempts at integration, first by Russian and Belarusian leaders and then by other leaders who do not want to be drawn into similar arrangements and who see the Moscow-Minsk conversations as providing an occasion for them to behave in an ever more independent manner.