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Belarus/Russia: New Union Agreement Doesn't Bring Countries Closer

Russia announced last week another agreement purporting to set up a single Belarusian-Russian state. It is the third such agreement since 1996, and like its predecessors, it does not provide for a full union. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that domestic politics in each country make a real union highly unlikely.

Moscow, 4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday was supposed to be the signing day for a treaty uniting Russia and Belarus into one state. But the day came and went without bringing the two countries any closer. While Russia is displaying satisfaction at the watered-down agreement, Belarus is sulking.

Earlier last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin approved a draft agreement on union that was apparently less sweeping than originally envisioned. In an emotional outburst, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called the draft treaty "a laughingstock" and warned that the Belarusian people would not suffer such humiliating treatment. Lukashenka implied that the text presented to him for signature was an exclusively Russian one that had little in common with the grand plans of a common state. Still, he said he too would approve it.

The text was supposed to be published on Friday but has yet to be officially released.

Under current treaties, Russia and Belarus cooperate in a common defense policy and a customs union. But few common political organs exist, and those that do are largely consultative.

Last week's agreement was supposed to provide the foundations for a complete merger of the two countries. But the plan includes neither a common head of state, nor a common currency, nor a common passport. Basically, as Lukashenka complained, the new union agreement doesn't go much beyond the two previous Russian-Belarusian union agreements, of 1996 and 1997.

According to political analyst Andrei Piontkowsky, the explanation for this is quite simple both Yeltsin and Lukashenka want to keep things as they are for now. Piontkowsky is an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. He told RFE/RL that the two presidents had supported union only as long as it advanced their respective political aims. He says Lukashenka wanted a merger as a way of gaining power in Russia, hoping to become first vice president and then president of the union. And Yeltsin, Piontkowsky says, wanted a merger as a means of extending his time in office -- much as Slobodan Milosevic did when he assumed the Yugoslav federal presidency in 1997 after his term as Serbian president was over. Under this scenario, Yeltsin would upgrade himself to a more powerful post as president of a combined state.

But now, says Piontkowsky, the two men have realized that those goals are not attainable at the moment. Therefore they have lost interest in the union.

Piontkowsky says Lukashenka has come to realize that the Kremlin has no intention of supporting his quest for a post that would involve power over Russian affairs.

And the analyst says Yeltsin has dropped the Milosevic scenario because it is too difficult to implement at present. A true merger would entail complex constitutional changes and could require both a referendum and parliamentary approval.

Russian liberal politicians say their country does not have much to gain from further union with Belarus. The advantages to union are cooperation on defense and customs matters, and those exist already under the current union. And the disadvantages to Russia, liberals say, are significant: By joining with Belarus, Russia would be attaching to itself an economic deadweight it cannot afford, especially with the new costs of the Chechen war. Russian liberals are worried about the effect an unreformed Belarus might have on the struggling Russian economy. In addition, Russia would inherit Lukashenka, an authoritarian who has quarreled with most of the Western capitals.

Pro-union politicians accuse liberal politicians of sabotaging the merger. Alexander Tyagunov is a Russian deputy and member of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, which serves as a largely advisory legislative organ in the existing Russian and Belarus Union. He says there are, in his words, "pro-Westerners behind the anti-Union forces." Tyagunov says that the treaty has gone back into mediation since Lukashenka's outburst. He says Moscow and Minsk are continuing talks.

But analysts think that this third union agreement will most likely be used, like the others before it, only as a political tool before elections. The first treaty, from 1996, was signed three months before the presidential election. Russia has parliamentary elections coming up in December, and a presidential election next June.