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Belarus: President Striving For Union With Russia

Prague, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin announced early this month that Russia will sign a treaty with Belarus this fall, allowing the two countries "to enter the 21st century as a union-state." For those who may have lost count of Russian-Belarusian integration initiatives, it would be the third major agreement on a single Russian-Belarusian state.

The first was signed in April 1996, the second one year later. There are many signs that this year's proposed document -- heralded by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in a joint declaration last December -- will not be the ultimate unification pact either.

Stepashin's pledge of quicker unification was preceded by what appeared to be an attempt at blackmail on the part of the Belarusian president. Addressing the July 2 session of the Belarusian-Russian Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk, Lukashenka threatened to seek rapprochement with the West if Russia continued to drag its feet on a closer union with his country. Following consultations with Yeltsin, Stepashin hastened to assure Lukashenka that the treaty will be ready within a month and will not be of simply a "declarative character."

As for Lukashenka's threat to repair relations with the West, Stepashin commented: "We would welcome that move, and a union between Russia and Belarus should not in any case stand as an obstacle to creating a unified Europe." Both Yeltsin and Stepashin are perfectly aware that, as one Russian newspaper put it, "there is no way to the West" for Lukashenka.

Lukashenka's attempt at pressuring Russia is rather a sign of his weakness and frustration as his presidency nears the completion of its fifth year today. European democracies have not recognized Belarus's controversial 1996 referendum, by means of which Lukashenka extended his presidential term until 2001. So far, he has not appeared to pay much attention to what the West thinks about his legitimacy after July 20. Rather, he seems to have scented another danger: What if Moscow strongmen -- embroiled in their intricate wars for power -- begin openly questioning his legitimacy and, consequently, his right to sign any interstate documents? Such a turn of events cannot be ruled out as Russia nears parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next year.

There has been much speculation in the Russian media that Yeltsin is willing to repeat the "Milosevic scenario" in order to stay in power beyond 2000. The creation of the Russian-Belarusian union could serve Yeltsin's political longevity in the Kremlin in the same way as the 1994 creation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia helped then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic remain at the helm in Belgrade as the head of the unified state of Serbia and Montenegro.

Lukashenka is ready to accept Yeltsin as the union president provided that he himself is given the post of vice president. However, Kremlin planners have not envisaged any union presidency or common government. And what is more important, even such staunch proponents of Russian-Belarusian integration as Russian State Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznev, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov have not insisted on the introduction of a union presidency. This should be taken by Lukashenka as a disappointing, if not alarming, state of affairs: Russian political elites have so far not devised any major role for him in the struggle for power in Russia. Moreover, it is unclear whether they ever intended to. Yeltsin recently announced that he is ready to step down when his term expires next year. Whether or not that is true, he may at least be willing to wait to take a final decision until after Russia's parliamentary elections in December. If the elections suggest that his preferred candidate will win the presidential race next year, he will most likely leave the political scene, placing the future of further integration with Belarus into the hands of his successor. If not, a "union option" that would prolong his rule might be used by him in earnest. In any case, no one should expect a treaty this fall that would allow Lukashenka to obtain the real levers of power in Russia.

Lukashenka recently declared that he will not accept a non-presidential power structure in the union-state. But it seems he will have no choice. If he refuses to sign another watered-down union treaty proposed by Moscow, he will find himself on the sidelines of the integration process, which he has so ardently championed. What is more, he may well find himself on the sidelines of all politics. Neglecting and even rejecting normal relations with Western democracies, he has become hostage to his one-sided policy of rapprochement with Russia. On the other hand, if he signs such a treaty, he will hardly get what he wants -- namely, more power and more Russian resources to bail out the sinking Belarusian economy.