Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 81

The period designated for public debate on the Treaty of Union between Belarus and Russia ends on May 15. Commentary in the liberal Russian media has been openly skeptical about the supposed benefits for Russia from the union. When Kommersant-daily interviewed four of Russia’s best-known regional leaders, all four claimed to support the union in principle, but none made any attempt to hide his doubts about the way it was being pursued in practice. (Kommersant-daily, April 16 and 18)

The president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, was openly contemptuous, pointing out that none of the most fundamental questions bearing upon the union had been addressed: "Is this going to be one state or two? Will Belarus be a component of the Russian Federation or not? Will the Belarusan people agree to it?" Aushev likened Russia to Alice’s Wonderland, where nothing is what it seems to be. "Remember, under Gorbachev, a referendum was held in favor of preserving the union, and immediately afterwards the union fell apart."

Even the president of North Ossetia, Akhsarbek Galazov, who faithfully supports Moscow’s line and whose people are the most loyal to Moscow of all the peoples of the North Caucasus, expressed concern over the "haste" with which the union is being pushed through. In light of "growing perceptions that Belarus is violating human rights," he said with unusual bluntness, "wisdom and restraint" would be preferable.

Also dissenting was the prime minister of Karelia, Viktor Stepanov. He said all the pros and cons should be calculated before reaching a conclusion. Stepanov warned that union between Russia and Belarus could provoke secessionist movements in Russian-populated eastern Ukraine and in northern Kazakstan, a potentially dangerous development.

The position taken by President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan was of special interest since commentators have argued that, if union goes ahead, Belarus will find itself reduced to a similar status vis-a-vis Russia as Tatarstan. Tatarstan’s legal status is extremely ambiguous: it calls itself a sovereign state bound to the Russian Federation by treaty while the Russian constitution describes it as a component part of the federation. Shaimiev’s comment was surprising, coming as it did from a president who claims himself to lead a sovereign state within the Russian Federation. "I do not understand," he said, "why Belarus is giving up its sovereignty."

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