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Belarus: Minority Report -- Does Lukashenka's Dance With Moscow Help Or Hurt Russian Community? (Part 2)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has often reiterated his belief that Belarusians and Russians are one people. He has spent the past decade working to rebuild some form of union between the two countries. Part 2 in RFE/RL's series on Russian minorities in former Soviet republics examines how Lukashenka's apparent affection for ethnic Russians is played out at home.

Prague, 19 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For years, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union and sought to reunite his country with Russia. So it is only natural that, in some respects, Russian citizens living in or visiting Belarus receive preferential treatment and advantages that other foreigners do not.

Russian freelance journalist and RFE/RL contributor Yurii Svirko lives in the Belarusian capital Minsk. He said Russians undergo fewer bureaucratic formalities than other foreigners in order, for example, to receive permission to reside in Belarus.

Unlike other foreigners, he added, Russians can also buy certain property in Belarus. They can even vote for or be elected to neighborhood representative bodies, although voting for or holding any higher elected office is prohibited.

Such privileges, he said, are "restricted to Russians only and the exclusions are made for Russians only. All other foreigners are treated as full-fledged foreigners. Russians are, I would say, semi-foreigners in Belarus."

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh explained there is no dual citizenship in Belarus, but that Russians enjoy many important privileges other foreigners do not. "Those privileges relate to equal rights with Belarusian citizens," he said. "The most important thing is they have the same rights as national citizens, native citizens of Belarus -- rights related to access to education, to health care, to children's care in kindergartens and to social protection -- for example, pension funds."

Savinykh stressed that Belarus does not intend to give up its identity should a union state with Russia someday be formed. However, he said, the situation would change somewhat. "The treaty on creation of the so-called union state of Belarus and Russia envisages that the nationals of Belarus and Russia are simultaneously the nationals of the union state and they are entitled to have election rights and to be able to elect the union parliament, but the national parliaments would be elected separately," he said.

Savinykh said that even in the instance of the creation of a union parliament or council, both countries will remain sovereign. "First of all, we should keep in mind that the union treaty does not mean that it will be one state, and that after the signing of the treaty we'll have just one parliament for both countries," he said.

Many observers now doubt the union treaty will ever be fully implemented. Lukashenka's enthusiasm for the treaty, condemned by Belarusian pro-democracy activists and patriots as a surrender of sovereignty, has waned in recent months.

Russia has let Lukashenka understand that a union would not be a marriage of equals that could present him the opportunity to wield control over Russia as well as Belarus. The Belarusian leader has since backtracked on key elements of the treaty -- such as plans to substitute the Russian ruble for Belarusian currency by 2005.

Russian journalist Svirko said that despite Lukashenka's traditional fondness for Russia, things have always worked differently in practice. "The Belarusian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, declares that Russian nationals are not foreigners in Belarus, but as a national of Russia living in Belarus, I do not feel like this," he said.

Svirko said many of the privileges Russians are supposed to enjoy in Belarus remain largely theoretical. He said Russians usually have to pay for residency permits, as well as higher rates for medical services and even hotel rooms. "Russian nationals in Belarus are still treated like foreigners by the Belarusian police," Svirko said. "They must be registered like [any other] foreigners, they must have special residence permits, and they also must pay for their stay in Minsk each day they stay in Minsk."

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, most of the former republics declared their native tongues as the official state language. Belarus initially did the same. But although ethnic Russians officially represent just 11.4 percent of Belarus's 10 million people, a majority of the population speaks Russian, not Belarusian.

Even Lukashenka himself seems to shun the Belarusian language. After coming to power, he reintroduced Soviet-era state symbols and returned Russian's official-language status.

In some former Soviet republics, Russian minorities have complained that their human rights were being infringed because they have to learn the official language before they can hold a state job or obtain citizenship. Svirko said that although Russians have problems in Belarus, language is not one of them.

"Those with Russian passports don't feel at home in Belarus. As for the Russian-speaking minority, it is actually the Russian-speaking majority, because President Lukashenka himself speaks Belarusian just once a year -- when he is reading his Independence Day speech," Svirko said.

But although the Russian language is not restricted in Belarus, some Russian sentiments are decidedly less welcome. Lukashenka, who has been widely condemned for his Soviet-style authoritarianism and abuse of human rights, in July closed down the office of Russia's NTV television channel and deported its Russian journalist. NTV's crime? Broadcasting an interview with one of Lukashenka's political opponents.