Since becoming Russia’s prime minister in May, Sergei Stepashin has repeatedly announced the imminent completion of a treaty of union with Belarus. Signature in August, referendum in September, implementation in 2000–that has been the target. But at least as far as the public knows, even after five years of negotiations critical political and economic issues remain unresolved.

How will a unified state choose its chief executive, what will be his powers, and who will fill the post?

In Moscow the talk is all of Boris Yeltsin using the presidency of a Russia-Belarus union to prolong his power beyond his constitutional term as president of Russia, which ends next year. In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s term expired last week, on July 20; Lukashenka, however, extended his term to 2001 in a rigged 1996 referendum that disbanded the parliament and junked the constitution. In all of Europe, only Russia and Yugoslavia regard Lukashenka, his government and his parliament as legitimate. Lukashenka could regain international recognition with accession to the top spot in a new, unified state.

And would the new head of state have any real power? Would he be commander in chief of the armed forces? Could he sign or veto legislation, and, if so, from what parliament? Could he name a cabinet? If negotiators have settled these questions, they have kept the answers to themselves.

The economic issues are equally obscure. The Belarusan Central Bank did announce that it would phase in the Russian ruble as its currency over eight years, but it is not clear how or at what rate assets and liabilities in Belarusan rubles will be converted. Nor is it clear whether a new monetary authority will be created, or how intergovernmental debts will be recalculated and cleared. These are key questions; their answers could enrich one state at the expense of the other.

There is no evidence that Boris Yeltsin really sees the Russia-Belarus Union as a life-after-death option for his waning presidency, but he has never renounced the idea or denounced the rumors. If in fact his goal is to create an office that he can fill next year, he puts Russia very much at a disadvantage. Lukashenka faces no such urgency.

Lukashenka runs his state as a dictator, muzzling his opponents through exile and imprisonment. When his extended term expires in 2001, he can arrange his own reelection. In negotiations with Russia, Lukashenka can hold out for economic benefits. And, at 43, he will still be young enough at Yeltsin’s passing to make his own stand for the presidency of a Russo-Belarusan state.