In his first visit to a CIS country as prime minister of Russia, Sergei Kirienko conferred behind closed doors with Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and co-chaired with Belarusan Prime Minister Syarhey Linh a regular biannual session of the Russia-Belarus Union’s Executive Committee. Rhetoric about Slavic brotherhood notwithstanding, the meetings held on June 9 and 10 produced no results.
Belarus resisted Kirienko’s proposals for reimbursement of Belarusan debts to Russia. The bulk of arrears are in the energy sector where they amount to US$430 million, including US$240 million for natural gas. Kirienko hinted that Lukashenka had countered with his usual twin arguments: that Russia should accept payment through barter, rather than cash; and that the value of Belarusan debts should be recalculated by deducting Russia’s alleged debts to Belarus. Kirienko, for his part, renewed the proposals that Minsk repay by turning over industrial property to Russian capital. The sides could only agree to set up a joint working group “on the problem of mutual indebtedness.” The current Belarusan debts accumulated since the creation of the Russia-Belarus Union on April 1, 1996, when Moscow wrote off the debts owed by Belarus as of that date.
The sides were also unable to agree on arrangements to create a joint television and radio company. The Belarusan side charged that “senior Russian officials sabotaged the matter.” Russian President Boris Yeltsin had earlier signed an agreement of intent with Lukashenka to establish such a company, even nominating its co-chairmen. Lukashenka expects such a company to offset the Russian media’s criticism of his rule.
Disagreements also persisted over proposals to unify customs legislation and to devise a flag, coat of arms and anthem of the Russia-Belarus Union. In a concluding statement, Kirienko observed that political development of the Union lacks an appropriate economic foundation. (Russian agencies, RTR, June 9 and 10) The latter statement passes over the military advantages that Russia stands to gain from its relationship with Belarus. These advantages explain the Kremlin’s readiness to overlook political slights and financial debts and to cultivate its special relationship with Lukashenka.
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