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Russia: Views Differ On Kremlin Push For Union With Belarus

The Russian government is expressing renewed interest in a political union with Belarus. RFE/RL correpondent Floriana Fossato reports that some in Moscow are speculating the move may be tied to an effort by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to remain in power.

Moscow, 6 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said this week he has been directed by President Boris Yeltsin to draw up a "serious, concrete" proposal on a political union with Belarus. And, Stepashin says, he has been told to do so within a month.

His comments come after Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka last week said he would move closer to the European Union if Moscow failed to move fast on a union with his country. In a speech at a meeting of Belarusian and Russian parliamentarians in Minsk on Friday, Lukashenka criticized Moscow for moving slowly on a union. He said that if Russia does not reconsider its approach to the issue, "Belarus will change the vector of its priorities in foreign policy."

But some commentators in Moscow say renewed Kremlin interest in a union with Belarus has more to do with the expiration of Yeltsin's term of office in 2000 than with Belarus-Russia ties.

These commentators include former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In an interview with the daily "Segodnya" published today, Gorbachev says he knows from what he calls "trustworthy sources" that the Kremlin is considering postponing the June 2000 presidential election. He says the postponement would be linked to "creation of the new unified state."

Gorbachev says that in linking postponement of the election to a union with Belarus, Yeltsin could appear to be acting in the interest of the state rather than in his own political interest.

Meanwhile, another daily, "Izvestya," published an interview today with Yeltsin in which he says he is ready to step down when his term expires next year. Under the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin is barred from running again.

Today's two interviews look strangely like an extension of past public disputes between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, two long-time opponents.

But Gorbachev is not the only one speculating on how a union between Belarus and Russia could affect Russian politics. Last month, two political analysts, Vyacheslav Nikonov and Sergei Markov, said they also believe Yeltsin will likely hold on to power as head of the new state emerging after the union of Russia and Belarus.

Other analysts also suggest the Kremlin may be interested in keeping alive a "Belarus union option" that would allow Yeltsin to stay in power. But some of them see the option as a "last resort", likely to become reality only if December parliamentary elections fail to reassure the Kremlin over who would likely win the presidential race next June.

Still other Moscow observers believe that, as Yeltsin told Izvestya, "the main task" of Kremlin strategists now is to prepare parliamentary and presidential elections in a way that will allow the president to step down with, as Yeltsin put it, "a light heart."

Yeltsin told Izvestya he knows whom he wants his successor to be. But he refused to provide a name. Yeltsin said that if he did, his preferred candidate "will not be able to live in peace."