Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 68

The leaders of Russia and Belarus celebrated this week the fifth anniversary of the founding act of union. That hastily cobbled document was signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 1, 1996, and purported to create a confederation under the acronym “SSR.” The document was subsequently redated April 2, and the name of the would-be state was changed to avoid embarrassing associations with Fools’ Day and with the Soviet Union. The current official name, Byelorussia-Russia Union State, is its third in the space of five years. The contours of such a union are, furthermore, barely discernible outside the military sphere.

Presidents Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin of Russia co-chaired in Moscow a special session of the Union State’s Higher Council, a largely symbolic body which meets at intervals. The Union State’s Permanent Committee, which is its standing executive body with an authorized staff of 300, is not known to have met for marking the festive occasion. Its head, Pavel Borodin, observed the anniversary in a New York jail, awaiting extradition to Switzerland for trial on charges of international money laundering which involve funds amassed from bribes. Borodin, a protege of Yeltsin and one-time protector of Putin–whose appointee he is at the head of the Union State’s Permanent Committee–has since become a close political ally of Lukashenka.

On the anniversary day, Lukashenka reacted indignantly to leaked news from the Kremlin about a plan to dump Borodin and appoint another head of the Permanent Committee. Beyond a personal sense of loyalty to Borodin, there are policy considerations which motivate Lukashenka’s resistance. The leaked plan would replace Borodin with the Russian ultranationalist politician Sergei Baburin, upgrade the committee to a full-fledged ministry–the union state’s first–and relocate it from Minsk to Moscow. All this would seem to suggest that the Kremlin is prepared, if necessary, to accelerate the pace and broaden the scope of unification on Russia’s own terms, even if it means forcing Lukashenka’s hand.