Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 102

Meeting in the Kremlin yesterday to finalize the Charter of the Russia-Belarus Union, which they signed earlier today, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko demonstratively played down the event’s significance. "Do not expect anything sensational from this meeting," Yeltsin advised the press. "This is nothing special, there is too much ado about this event," echoed Lukashenko, "we are only formalizing what has long existed in practice."

Lukashenko has insisted down to the wire on excluding from the charter a commitment to the subsequent creation of a single state. Yeltsin had on May 14 publicly called for such a commitment to be codified in the charter as a common goal. The Belarusan president has won the Kremlin’s agreement to create a jointly-controlled television company to carry news and reportage from either country for the benefit of the other. This is a point of importance to Lukashenko, who considers Russia’s television networks partly responsible for his political difficulties. Yeltsin aide Sergei Shakhrai, a promoter of rapid and full unification of the two countries, will head the Russia-Belarus TV’s organizing commission

Lukashenko, in turn, has conceded that union agencies will be located in Moscow, rather than being shared by Moscow and Minsk or being placed in the western Russian city of Smolensk, near Belarus, as had also been proposed. The presidents agreed yesterday that union decisions would have to be countersigned by both presidents — in effect reserving for each of them a right of veto. This provision suits both presidents. Lukashenko is on guard against encroachments by the nascent union on his own sovereign prerogatives; Yeltsin and his team of reformers need this safeguard to counter a potential alliance in union bodies of Russian leftists with Lukashenko’s men.

Russian media are predicting that the document will fall well short of the full integration hoped for by some politicians in both countries. Russian leaders Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov are determined to ward off what they see as Lukashenko’s ambitions to expand his personal influence on the Russian political scene and they are expected to have used their influence to ensure that the charter remains on the level of symbolism. Yeltsin underlined the power of the two men yesterday, when he appointed both to Russia’s Security Council. (Xinhua, May 22)

In both Minsk and Moscow yesterday, Lukashenko went out of his way to declare his commitment to Belarusan sovereignty. He described the union as one of two independent and equal states, and termed the union bodies "interstate rather than suprastate." He also continued to denounce proposals that would break Belarus down into its six constituent regions and merge them to the Russian Federation. Although never considered seriously, such proposals have recently enabled Lukashenko to pose as a defender of Belarusan sovereignty and territorial integrity and as a moderate proponent of the union.

This recently adopted rhetoric reflects not only Lukashenko’s interest in preserving control of his part of the nascent union, but also his need to defuse internal resistance to the possible loss of Belarusan independence. The situation in Minsk over the past week or two has calmed down after a long series of pro-independence rallies and demonstrations. Yet, in his erratic and unpredictable manner, Lukashenko on arrival in Moscow called for a military alliance of Russia and Belarus as a corollary to their "integration," allegedly to "protect" their common assets and borders.

The Belarusan government expects some early Russian economic handouts within the framework of the union. Minsk yesterday asked Russia’s Central Bank to support the rapidly depreciating Belarusan ruble on the Russian currency market. And it also asked Gazprom to accept Belarusan goods and services as payment for Minsk’s arrears. (Belapan, Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 22)

Yeltsin Fires Top Two Military Leaders.