After months of speculation surrounding the contents of the Belarus-Russia union treaty, the presidents of the two countries finally signed the document today in Moscow. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the document is vague and does not come close to binding Russia and Belarus into one state.
Moscow, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The pact signed today by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is no more than a declaration of intention for an unspecified future.
Lukashenka, the more eager promoter of the agreement, said as much at a press conference today following a formal signing ceremony in the Kremlin, and an official lunch. He said that what the two countries signed was not an agreement on a unified state, but rather an agreement on how the process of unification would eventually take place.
"This is not the last treaty we will sign with Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin]. We will prepare and sign the treaty that our peoples are expecting from us, the people of Russia and the people of Belarus. A treaty of one united government."
Lukashenka said this treaty paves the way for future presidents, parliamentarians and governments if they wished to merge the two states.
Yeltsin said the signing of the treaty was a historic occasion.
"I'm persuaded, I'm sure, that our actions will be duly remembered by our descendents."
The treaty announces the creation of a Supreme State Council, and a government composed by ministers from both countries. But this government retains very little real executive power. And the common parliament will have mainly a consultative role, helping to harmonize the two countries' legislation.
The treaty also lays out an economic program to prepare the two states for merger. Lukashenka said that through a unified banking system, a common budget, and a united market, companies from each country will be able to do business in the other as easily as in their own. The ultimate step will be the creation of a common currency, but the Belarusian president indicated that this could take from five to fifteen years.
Lukashenka also announced that in a parallel document, the two countries agreed that Belarusian forces would guard what he called their common border with the West.
The ceremony, in the Kremlin's lush Gregorian Hall, was grand. But the treaty was just a shadow of what the two heads of states had promised last April. Over the past months, doubts have been growing over whether the pact would go any further than the two already-existing treaties. In September, when it was publicized that the treaty was not the "holy union of the people" that Lukashenka advocated, the Belarusian president implied that the treaty was a fake, written solely by Moscow. Later, Yeltsin postponed a signing ceremony planned for the end of November, citing illness. The Belarusian government reacted angrily, accusing Yeltsin of feigning illness to avoid signing.
Observers say Yeltsin has lost interest in a treaty that cannot score him any political points. Rumors that Yeltsin planned to prolong his time as leader by assuming the presidency of a unified state when his Russian presidency expires seem laid to rest, as Yeltsin has appointed his prime minister as heir.
A real merger indeed would provoke harsh reactions from the oppositions in both countries. In Belarus, the opposition denounces what it sees as a kind of russification. In Russia, many worry that Belarus would be an economic dead-weight.
Some Moscow newspapers argue that the postponement was a way for Russia to drag its feet. By not signing on November 26 as planned, Yeltsin missed the end of the fall Duma session and the treaty could not be ratified.
But suddenly, it seems, Yeltsin revived his interest in the treaty, perhaps to end the year on a positive note, however symbolic. The Duma has decided to meet in an extraordinary session on December 13 to consider the treaty.
For Lukashenka, the watered-down treaty is better than nothing. He has already announced that yet another union treaty with Yeltsin will be signed before he leaves power next summer. Lukashenka also said that he intends to be president of the unified state.