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Russia: Putin Achieves The Near Impossible -- Gets Belarusian Government, Opposition To Agree

In an unexpected move this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled proposals to merge Russia and Belarus into a union under a single president. His counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka rejected the plan, saying it would undermine Belarusian sovereignty. RFE/RL looks at the reaction in Belarus to the proposals.

Prague, 16 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved the near impossible. He got Belarus's government and opposition to agree, albeit on only one issue, and for decidedly different reasons.

At a Kremlin press conference with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 14 August, Putin unveiled proposals to join their two countries into a union under a single president, a single constitution, and a single currency, the Russian ruble.

Hitherto lukewarm to the idea of closer Belarus-Russia ties, Putin surprised observers by giving a detailed timetable for unification. Alternatively, he said the two countries could join together in a European Union-style arrangement.

In Moscow, Putin's abrupt about-face was seen as a sly move to outmaneuver, and ultimately sideline, his Belarusian counterpart by proposing unification on Russian terms.

Lukashenka has pushed for unification, but not on terms that would see Belarus merely absorbed as "Russia's 90th region," as he put it, and that would herald the end of his political career. He wants a confederation that would preserve Belarusian sovereignty.

Upon his return to Minsk, Lukashenka rejected Putin's plan, saying Belarusians would voice "absolute rejection" of a referendum asking if they wanted to be absorbed into Russia.

The pro-government daily "Sovetskaya Belorussia" suggested Putin cannot seriously expect "a leader of a sovereign state, which Alyaksandr Lukashenka is, to approve a scheme that could lead to that sovereign state's crumbling. No world leader would support this kind of integration scheme."

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushka said: "Our two leaders support the premise that our countries already have experience in building a [Russia-Belarus] union and they have not yet utilized all the mechanisms of the Union Treaty [of 1996], on the basis of which future relations will continue to develop. The Foreign Ministry contends that the development of the union will be based on the conservation of sovereignty and the international rights of each country," Latushka said.

Belarusian Constitutional Court Chairman Ryhor Vasilevich told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the country's laws would not allow a referendum along the lines of Putin's proposal. "In the Belarusian Electoral Code, Article 112 stipulates that a republican referendum cannot have questions that could result in violations of Belarus's territorial integrity. This is the law. And at the same time, the Belarusian Constitution is the constitution of a sovereign state, of a legal, social, democratic state. Without doubt, in order to solve these issues, it's necessary to refer to the text of the constitution, because the state is unitary, independent. Essentially, this question would be the first basis for the state to stop existing," Vasilevich said.

The opposition in Belarus has consistently opposed closer union with Russia.

Zenon Poznyak, an exiled nationalist politician, today condemned the plans as "a policy of bold occupation threats and intimidation," and called on Belarusians to fight for their independence.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the first head of state of an independent Belarus and an impassioned Lukashenka critic, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that Putin's proposals smacked of imperialism. "These proposals from Putin are reminiscent of what took place in Austria in 1937, when people there were saying, 'One nation, one language, why two governments?' But just as Germany in the end was unable to swallow up Austria, Russia will also be unable to absorb Belarus. I think this proposal is demeaning to the freedom-loving Belarusian people, to a nation that is friendly to the Russian nation," Shushkevich said.

Analysts agree Putin has called Lukashenka's bluff by presenting him with a unification offer he cannot accept. What this all means now for Lukashenka is unclear, as Belarus expert Jim Dingley of London University noted. "It's possible that Lukashenka will become a [model] Belarusian, even a nationalist, because he has no other options now. He doesn't want to become a governor of a Russian province. What other options are open to him?" Dingley said.

But in the end, rejecting Putin's proposals may leave Lukashenko, a leader already shunned by most of the West, even more isolated from the rest of the world.

(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service and Georgi Koritarov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service contributed to this report.)