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Russia/Belarus: Union Will Never Be An Equal Marriage

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently declared that his country will never become a province of Russia. Lukashenka's comments came in response to statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, speaking earlier this month in St. Petersburg, rejected the possibility of creating a Russia-Belarus union and offered instead for Belarus to become part of the Russian state.

Prague, 20 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, for the first time, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that there will be no union with Belarus on an equal basis.

Putin, speaking on 13 June in St. Petersburg, said Russia will not give Belarus equal status in political decisions in any future union and rejected the idea of a working Russia-Belarus parliament.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took Putin's remarks as an insult and said Minsk would never agree to lose its sovereignty and become a Russian province.

The two countries signed a union treaty when Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia that envisaged close political, economic, and military ties but stopped short of creating a single state.

A united parliament was created, but it has no real power and adopts only resolutions and makes proposals, which are usually ignored by the national parliaments.

More progress is being made in the field of economic integration. The border between the two states does not practically exist. Russia subsidizes oil and gas to Belarus. Moscow also gives favorable credits to the state-regulated Belarusian economy. Russia also does not pay Belarus for the transit of its oil and gas and has military bases on Belarusian territory.

A union with Russia has always been a cornerstone of Lukashenka's populist policies. The idea of a union with Russia began gaining popularity in Belarus after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Though there were ups and downs, Lukashenka always declared Belarus's desire for a union with Russia, but a union of equal partners. Lukashenka even envisaged a joint presidency.

Putin's remarks in St. Petersburg this month put an end to those hopes.

Some analysts say the crisis in relations between Belarus and Russia is caused by the new geopolitical situation that emerged after the 11 September terrorist attacks. They say Russia has decided to ally itself with the West and that Moscow is beginning to believe that the political and economic price for retaining warm ties with Belarus and its authoritarian president is too high.

Other analysts say an equal union between the two states has always been an unrealistic project. They say there cannot be an equal union between two partners when one of the partners has 145 million inhabitants, and the other only 10 million. Closer ties are possible, they say, only if Belarus is willing to accept a subordinate status.

Andrei Piontkovskii is director of the nongovernmental Strategic Studies Center based in Moscow. He told RFE/RL that Lukashenka is a cynical politician and that from the beginning of the integration movement, he knew he would never abandon his post as Belarusian president.

Piontkovskii said Putin's comments finally put an end to illusions of a union of equal partners. "Ultimately, Putin said, it is enough to play the fool. You [Lukashenka] must decide if you are ready to unite with Russia and become a part of the Russian Federation. [Putin also urged] an end to the building of those terrible bureaucratic structures, some kind of united parliament. Lukashenka said what he was always thinking: 'Belarus will never become the 90th subject of the Russian Federation.'"

Piontkovskii said Belarus still receives enormous economic preferences from Russia: low prices for oil and gas and the removal of customs barriers. However, Piontkovskii said, relations between Russia and Belarus will now develop without mutual deceit and without what he called "integration games."

He said the changes in Russia's attitude toward Belarus are also the result of the new geopolitical situation, in which Russia is now allied with the United States in the war on terrorism. Belarus, because of its antagonistic policies and attitude toward the West, has became an unnecessary burden.

Sergei Karaganov is chairman of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. He told RFE/RL that Russia cannot have closer relations with Belarus if Lukashenka's government fails to make economic reforms. "It is impossible for Russia to come closer to Belarus if Belarus preserves the same kind of society and economy. There are some people in Belarus who want to preserve the present situation. If President Lukashenka decides to make reforms, then the rapprochement would be possible. If there would be no such reforms, if there would be no privatization, no democratization, at least at the same level as in China, it is clear that the fundamentals for the Belarusian-Russian rapprochement would be weak," Karaganov said.

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst in the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, told RFE/RL that the rapprochement between Russia and Belarus has its own logic. Geopolitical concerns matter, he said, but they are not decisive.

Ryabov said Putin has practical reasons for not giving Belarus an equal say in a future union. Belarus, whose gross domestic product is only 3 percent of Russia's GDP, is simply too small to be an equal partner. He said this point of view was always present among the Russian political elite, but that Putin is the first Russian president to articulate it openly.

However, Ryabov said, this fact alone would not stop an integration between the two countries. "The logic of the integration process suggests that further integration will continue. It means there is a momentum for completing absolutely unified custom laws [and] in introducing a common currency after five years," Ryabov said.

Ryabov said Russian businessmen are investing in Belarus, partly because they are treated not as foreigners but as natives. He predicted that some chill in personal relations between Lukashenka and Putin will remain, but said Lukashenka does not have an alternative to forging closer relations with Russia. "Lukashenka may try some other [political] combinations, but he doesn't have enough [political and financial] resources for it. Practically, he will not be able to get any help from outside. He has two choices: either Russia or the European Union. I think the EU will not help him under any conditions, no matter what reforms and political changes he promises," Ryabov said.

Ryabov said there will be no union but that Lukashenka is nevertheless destined to move closer to Russia. Sooner or later, he will have to find a common language with the Russian authorities on an official or unofficial level.

Ryabov said Lukashenka will not agree to become leader of one of the Russian provinces. The most credible scenario for Belarus is becoming a Russian satellite with limited sovereignty.

(Jurij Drakhokrust of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this story.)