Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 228

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed yesterday with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin in Moscow a treaty on “creating a union state” and an accompanying action program to implement the treaty (see the Monitor, December 8). The two presidents agreed orally to sign in short order a further treaty, one regarding the union state as such. As this sequence suggests, the December 8 treaty is designed to take Belarus one step further down the path of absorption by Russia, in a gradual process which saw the signing of treaties on the Russia-Belarus Community in 1996 and the Russia-Belarus Union in 1997, before advancing to its current stage. Lukashenka agrees with official Moscow on the general direction of this process, but he differs–sometimes sharply–with Moscow over the specific terms of political and economic unification.

To take either side’s emphatic commitment to unification at face value or, conversely, to dismiss the content of each successive treaty as insignificant or inconsequential in relation to the status quo ante would be to overlook the incremental nature of the process. A host of internal and external circumstances dictate a gradual strategy. Any treaty or undertaking which Belarus enters with Russia needs to be considered in that context and to be assessed through the prism of its intent and utility at the given stage. The gradual–and sometimes poorly synchronized–strategy and Lukashenka’s tactical differences with the Kremlin may yet drag out the process and, thus, offer Belarus a chance to survive as a nation.

The December 8 treaty defines the “union state” as a “further stage in the process of unification of the two countries.” It creates a set of supra-state governing institutions, to wit: a Higher State Council, made up of the two states’ presidents, prime ministers and chairmen of both chambers of each country’s parliament; a Council of Ministers, whose chairman will be appointed by the Higher State Council; a union parliament, to consist of a House of Representatives whose members will be elected and a House of the Union whose members will be appointed by the executive branch; a Supreme Court and an Accounting Chamber, the latter to oversee the implementation of the union’s budget. The union state will adopt its own flag, coat-of-arms and anthem. The union bodies will use only one official language–Russian.

Meanwhile, both states preserve their “independence and sovereignty, their respective state systems and constitutions”–in effect a guarantee for Lukashenka to continue his personal rule in Belarus. They also preserve their respective currencies pending the unification of those currencies and the creation of a single emission center.

The next stage of the process will see a delimitation of authority between the two states and the union through “voluntary delegation of powers” by the former to the latter. Although the sides clearly have the model of USSR “federalism” in mind, Lukashenka will undoubtedly try to drive a very hard bargain over the “delegation of powers.” Also to be determined in the follow-up stage are the locations of various union bodies, the actual terms of monetary unification, the formation of the union budget and the unification of economic and other legislation and–most important from Lukashenka’s standpoint–the rules which will govern the chairmanships of the union’s Higher State Council and Council of Ministers. To have his cake and eat it too, Lukashenka will undoubtedly try to retain undivided control over Belarus while seeking a top post in the union state–and thus, indirectly, a measure of power in Russia itself.

Lukashenka agreed yesterday that Yeltsin will have the first crack at the post of chairman of the Higher State Council–that is, head of the union state. That body will hold its inaugural session next month. Lukashenka indicated that he will be next in line for the Higher State Council’s chairmanship. He staked that claim by inviting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to rotate into the chairmanship of the union’s Council of Ministers and declaring in the same breath that one member state fills that post while the other member state fills the Higher State Council’s chairmanship (Itar-Tass, December 8). The Belarusan dictator will indeed be well placed for hard bargaining with Putin in the runup to Russia’s presidential election. Should Lukashenka overplay his hand, he may allow Belarusan statehood–though certainly not Belarusan democracy–gain a brief lease on life.