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Russia: In Surprise Move, Putin Backs Russia-Belarus Merger; Lukashenka Rebuffs Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent the past two years playing down Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's hopes of joining the two countries in a political union. But yesterday, Putin appeared to change course, announcing halfway through Kremlin talks with Lukashenka that he was ready to see the two countries merge as soon as 2004. Putin's proposal -- to create a single state under a single president -- clearly took the Belarusian leader by surprise, and Lukashenka later rejected the plan. RFE/RL reports on Putin's sudden change of course.

Moscow, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 14 August for Kremlin talks on the long-pending union between their two countries. The outcome of the talks appeared to come as a surprise to Lukashenka. As the Belarusian leader stood by glumly, Putin announced to reporters a radical proposal for unifying Russia and Belarus.

One possible option, which Putin described as "concrete, clear, and understandable," would entail a full merger between the two countries. "In May next year [2003], we could have a referendum regarding the final unification [of Russia and Belarus]. In December 2003, we could have elections for a common parliament, and in the spring, let's say in March of 2004, have elections for a common head of state," Putin said.

Such a state would be based on the Russian Constitution, Putin said, because Belarus is a "single-entity" country, whereas Russia is a federation.

The Russian president also suggested a second alternative would be to create a partnership along the lines of the European Union, headed by a unified legislature.

Lukashenka's press for a Russia-Belarus union, as outlined in a 1996 treaty signed with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, has been routinely rebuffed by Putin. Yesterday, apparently stunned by Putin's surprise reversal, Lukashenka largely refrained from comment while in Moscow. Once back in Belarus, however, he angrily rejected the Russian proposal.

In comments shown on Russian television, Lukashenka said that for Belarusians, Putin's proposed referendum would mean a choice: "'Do you agree to divide Belarus into seven parts and merge them into Russia with rights equal to those of the subjects of the Russian Federation?' What would be the reaction of a Belarus citizen? Absolute rejection, absolutly not," Lukashenka said.

He also said the European Union-model option was only possible if the full sovereignty of both countries was guaranteed. He said the union should follow the 1996 treaty, which called for the creation of a unified economic zone, the synchronization of economic reforms, and the introduction of a single currency, but would leave him in place as president of Belarus.

Russian newspapers on 15 August said Putin had succeeded in muzzling Lukashenka by making him an offer he had to refuse. An article in the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily said, "Belarus will become Russia's 90th subject," adding that Belarusian elites would have to pay for the benefits of unification by parting with their independence.

"Kommersant" said neither country's electorate would support a merger. Putin's well-timed announcement was meant not to push forward with a referendum, but to expose the strange logic behind the proposed unification, something, the paper said, that came as a surprise only to Lukashenka.

Analysts agree that Putin has backed Lukashenka into a corner by presenting him with an unacceptable option. Andrei Piontkovskii of the Center for Strategic Studies said the Belarusian president will never agree to the form of unification Putin proposed yesterday. "It's completely clear that Lukashenka will never agree to that. He'd never exchange his position as dictator of a medium-sized European state for that of a secretary of a Minsk regional administration or governor," Piontkovskii said.

Piontkovskii added, however, that Putin's new tack is partly a response to Russia's political elite, who were skeptical of Lukashenka's pretensions to a large personal role within the proposed union. "He gave way to the pressure of a Russian political class that wants to prolong its self-delusion. That is, Putin essentially said -- when he said [last June] that the flies should be separated from the candy -- let's stop Lukashenka from leading us around by the nose," Piontkovskii said.

Other analysts, however, say there is widespread support for the proposed union in Russia. Sergei Kazenov, an analyst at the Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies, said Putin's words are an accurate reflection of Russian public opinion. "Putin remains president. He's obliged to heed what his country thinks of the issue. He has to listen to the opinions of the military, to public opinion, and public opinion and the military are supporting closer ties. So Putin, as president, [is] carrying out the will of his people," Kazenov said.

But Kazenov said the president's comments yesterday will not dramatically alter the situation. "The ties will be very close. There will be a union or a friendship or something similar -- anything you want to call it. But the essence remains the same. That's why Putin's current words don't change anything in Russia's approach and in the real possibilities for closer Russian-Belarusian ties," Kazenov said.

In addition to using the opportunity to wrest the political initiative away from Lukashenka, Putin may have other reasons to keep the union proposal afloat. The Russian president, who has in the past lavishly hosted other such Western enemies as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, may be looking to send another signal that Russia is keeping its geostrategic options open.

Putin may also be interested in economic issues, though Russia would have little to gain in a union with Belarus in the foreseeable future.

Putin yesterday proposed to step up, by one year, plans to introduce the Russian ruble as the common Russian-Belarusian currency, to the beginning of 2004. "This will require great effort from Russia, and will be a burden for us and our economy," the president said, in remarks reported by Interfax. "Russia has already given Belarus a $100 million credit in addition to 3.5 billion-ruble [$100 million] of a 4.5 billion-ruble technical loan to the Belarusian National Bank, to widen the use of the Russian ruble in Belarus and to stabilize its neighbor's currency ahead of a merger."

A customs treaty and a number of other agreements already exist between the two countries. Russia and Belarus have agreed to single railroad transport rates -- another issue on which Belarus is dragging its feet -- and Russia sells natural gas to Belarus at cheap domestic rates, at which the Russian Gazprom gas monopoly makes a loss.

Still, Minsk often refuses to pay Russia for natural resources. Belarus is Russia's third-largest trading partner, but, as Putin noted in his disparaging remarks to Lukashenka in June, has an economy equal to about 3 percent of Russia's.

Belarus has also maintained a number of major communist-era economic practices. Minsk maintains a centralized price-setting system and artificially fixes currency-exchange rates. Belarus has also largely avoided privatization of key state-owned enterprises.