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Belarus: Lukashenka Gets Moral But No Financial Support

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continued a two-day working visit to Moscow today, during which he met with top Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central Bank chief Viktor Gerashchenko. Lukashenka says he and Putin discussed military and economic issues as well as ways to unite the countries' legal system, as called for under their 1999 union treaty. Russian representatives have been more circumspect in their characterization of the talks. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

PRAGUE, 16 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- President Lukashenka began his visit to Moscow yesterday doing what some would argue he does best: playing hockey. The keen sportsman joined a team of veteran Belarusian players and faced off against a Russian squad made up of government ministers and parliament members. Lukashenka led his team to an 8-5 victory over the Russians.

But in the political arena, Lukashenka's visit was not such a clear-cut victory. As with previous bilateral meetings, it followed a predictable pattern. Lukashenka made a pitch for ever-closer ties with Russia, while Moscow gently kept him at arm's length.

Lukashenka faces re-election this year and with his country's industrial production continuing to decline, he has become increasingly reliant on Russian help to finance Belarus's state budget. As he gears up for the campaign, Lukashenka has been searching for ways to boost his country's economy, telling journalists he was seeking increased economic cooperation, especially in the military-industrial sphere. But during a meeting with Russian Central Bank chief Viktor Gerashchenko, Lukashenka denied that he had come to Moscow as a supplicant:

"I am not here to ask for another loan, as some are asking me everywhere both on the ice (playing hockey) and near the ice. What I really want is to ask you for some advice, and I expect you to give us some ideas for the future, as you have always done."

Gerashchenko's tepid response, couched in bureaucratic formulations, hinted that while unification may serve some politicians' political interests, from an economic point of view, it is not something Russia wishes to hurry.

"We do not always come at once to a common denominator, because there are certain circumstances taken into account by the national leadership with which we do not always agree right away. For this reason, the traveling and the exchange of experts is a certain plus."

Edwin Bacon is a lecturer in Russian politics at Britain's University of Birmingham. He told RFE/RL that while Belarus can prove a useful political ally to Russia, especially as a threat to the West against further NATO expansion, the economics of the relationship put a significant brake on full unification.

"The key difference is that from the Belarusian point of view, as I understand it, there is an economic motivation which is simply not there on the Russian side. It would be detrimental to the Russian economy to really push on with this union at the moment. And that seems to be in the background, but (nevertheless) the main stumbling block."

Since taking office in 1994, Lukashenka has lobbied consistently to link Belarus's fortunes to Russia. The countries signed a formal union treaty in 1999 and late last year, Russia and Belarus agreed to introduce the Russian ruble as the nations' common currency in 2005. But Bacon says that date remains far away, and all indications are that for the immediate future, Russia will continue to meet Lukashenka's requests with an indulgent smile, but little action.

"2005 is in many ways a sort of indeterminate time. It's far enough ahead for all sorts of things to happen in between. It's a promise which in many ways is no promise. At the moment, it's so far away that they can work towards it. I mean, it's like the British government joining the euro."

With his continuing hostility to Western Europe and the United States -- last demonstrated by his snubbing of the U.S. ambassador to Minsk, who was not invited to attend New Year's celebrations over the weekend, Lukashenka leaves himself little maneuvering room. Russia need not fear its ally will stray and for the moment, appears to feel no compelling reason for a closer embrace.