Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Vladimir Putin conveyed a political point by stopping in Minsk on his way to London and by making Belarus the first country he visited after winning Russia’s presidential election. Putin’s talks with counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 16 in Minsk focused on the implementation of the December 8, 1999, bilateral Treaty on the Creation of a Union state. Unlike the earlier, largely declarative Russia-Belarus unification treaties, the 1999 document is accompanied by an implementation program which includes specific economic and institution-building goals and timetables.

Setting the stage for Putin’s visit, Lukashenka surprised his country and foreign governments by calling for the formation of a 300,000-strong Russian-Belarusan joint group of forces, to be armed with up-to-date weaponry and stationed in Belarus. Unveiling the proposal in his annual address to parliament, Lukashenka justified it as a countermeasure to NATO’s eastward enlargement. The proposal would triple the strength of the planned joint group of forces. It would also entail, as Lukashenka made clear, the stationing of those Russian troops on Belarusan territory, rather than introducing them there only for periodic joint exercises and in crisis or precrisis situations. If put into practice, the plan would bring to Belarus a Russian force more than double the size of the Belarusan military, which has fewer than 100,000 troops. Opposition leaders denounced the plan as violating the constitution–which enshrines the neutrality of Belarus and bans the stationing of foreign troops in the country–and as inviting a Russian military occupation in order to secure Lukashenka’s permanent hold on power.

Pavel Borodin, recently appointed by Putin as state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, and who accompanied Putin to Minsk, outlined a plan at least as grandiose. According to Borodin, a consortium of German, French and Italian firms stands ready to invest approximately US$15 billion in the project of a transit corridor from the western border of Belarus to Moscow. The corridor, to consist of modern highway and railroad arteries, telecommunications and energy systems, could be financed in part through Russian oil and natural gas deliveries to Western Europe, with some of those deliveries going via Belarus, Borodin told the media in Moscow and Minsk. Borodin, who is wanted on an international arrest mandate in Switzerland in connection with a money laundering scandal, stated that he is personally negotiating with the European would-be investors, and that Belarusan government representatives were also involved in the round of talks which took place last week in Moscow.

Borodin’s project would seem to be a wishful extension of the European Union’s plan for a Paris-Berlin-Warsaw transit corridor. But he pointed out that the project would directly benefit the Russian and Belarusan states and their union. “Western investors look at our union with enormous hopes,” he went on, “and this is due in no small measure to the unique geopolitical location of Belarus, which we should use to our advantage.”

Borodin also wishes the CIS countries to partake of those hopes. He confidently predicted in Minsk that Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan would join the Russia-Belarus Union “in the next three to four years.” And he dismissed the independence gained in 1991 by CIS countries as ultimately irrelevant: “The CIS may consist of many states, but the country [USSR] used to be a single one and so it remains in reality.” In fact, the governments of the countries named by Borodin, and other CIS countries as well, have conclusively ruled out joining the Russia-Belarus Union. It is primarily communists in CIS countries who favor joining that Union.

Putin and Lukashenka insisted equally that their union requires a solid economic foundation as a precondition for political institution-building. However, the two leaders take different views of that “economic foundation.” To Lukashenka, it means that Russia should subsidize the economy of union partner Belarus. To the Russian government, Russian oligarchs and–at least at this stage–to Putin, that phrase means that Belarus should pull its own economic weight in the union, and should seriously consider paying its arrears by handing over industrial property and infrastructure to Russia.