Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 81

The idea that Boris Yeltsin might use a union between Russia and Belarus as a way of extending his power after the year 2000–when his final term as president ends–has again been broached in the press. The basis for the new round of speculation was a meeting yesterday of Yeltsin’s advisory Security Council, during which the idea of a treaty creating a unified state was discussed. The meeting–which was chaired by Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin, who doubles as the Security Council’s secretary–included the heads of a number of top Russian ministries and agencies.

Following the meeting, Putin declared that current strategic and economic realities require that the process of unifying Russia and Belarus be accelerated. According to Putin, the key goals are developing and reforming the economy, strengthening security and opposing the infringement of both Russian and Belarusan interests–the importance of which, he said, has been demonstrated by the events in the Balkans. Putin also said that the move toward a union should be based on a realistic model of power structures for the new state, which will go well with the current constitutions and political-state systems of both countries. He said that a particular area of attention should be issues related to strengthening the security and guarding the borders of the union state (Russian agencies, April 26).

Boris Pastukhov, Russia’s minister of CIS affairs, said yesterday that a draft treaty on a unified Russia-Belarus state should be ready by June 1, and that, if it is supported by the leadership of both countries, it will then be put to a “national discussion.” Pastukhov said that what was envisaged was a new confederative state which will nonetheless maintain the state interests–and carry out the international obligations–of both countries (Russian agencies, April 26).

“Ill-wishers” are reportedly already saying that behind this latest push for Russia-Belarus unification “stands the elementary desire of Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] to remain on the Olympus of power.” Unidentified sources maintain that the Federation Council’s vote last week to reject the resignation of suspended Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, which many observers have interpreted as a severe blow to the Kremlin’s authority, “generated a strict presidential command for ‘an acceleration of the integration processes'” (Segodnya, April 27).

On April 23, in the wake of the vote on Skuratov, presidential physician Sergei Mironov was quoted as saying that Yeltsin “is in good enough shape” to “run [for president] in the year 2000.” Mironov emphasized he was not making a constitutional point, given that the Constitutional Court has already declared that Yeltsin, who was first elected president when Russia was still a Soviet republic, is serving his second and last term. Mironov also said that Yeltsin has no problems “related to alcohol abuse,” though he added that vodka has been a stress reliever in Russia “since time immemorial” (Komsomolskaya pravda, April 23).

One way or another, it would seem that the Kremlin and Yeltsin loyalists like Putin are, at minimum, floating trial balloons about the possibility of Yeltsin somehow sticking around as Russia’s leader after his term is up next year.

Rumors that Yeltsin might use a union with Belarus for political purposes first surfaced in early 1996, when his poll ratings were very low and he faced a presidential race. Some observers at that time speculated that the Kremlin would use a union with Belarus as a way to postpone the vote. Such rumors crop up periodically, and some have speculated that Yeltsin could follow the example of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who became head of the Yugoslav Federation after being Serbian president, and made sure that real power was transferred to the Yugoslav leadership job.