Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 86

The Kremlin gave further indications over the weekend that a union between Belarus and Russia is high on its agenda, despite the failure of Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka to consummate a marriage between the two states during the Belarus leader’s trip to Moscow last week.

Vladimir Putin, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service and secretary of Yeltsin’s advisory Security Council, said in a television interview yesterday that the Russian president would lead the Russian-Belarusan state and that the Belarusan president would serve as vice president and “head of the executive power institution.” Putin said that the cabinet would be given part of the sovereign rights of both countries, primarily concerning the economy–meaning currency regulation, customs and capital turnover.

He claimed that there are “very few opponents of a unified state here in Russia” but added that there are “different opinions on phases and ways to unify, and on the time necessary to achieve certain goals.” Putin explained that both Yeltsin and Lukashenka want “maximum unification,” but that the two states “are not prepared to yield their state sovereignty” (RTR, Russian agencies, May 2). Last week, after meeting with Yeltsin in Moscow, Lukashenka expressed disappointment with what he characterized as Moscow’s unwillingness to commit to a full-blown union.

One of the Kremlin’s opponents also spoke on the issue over the weekend. Georgy Tikhonov, a member of the leftist Popular Rule faction of the State Duma and chairman of its CIS affairs committee, said on May 2 that elections for a Russia-Belarus union parliament might be carried out simultaneously with the elections to the State Duma this December. Tikhonov said he believed that a referendum on uniting the two states was unnecessary, given that in 1991, a majority of the citizens of the Soviet Union voted to maintain the union and that this, in his view, had not been rescinded. Tikhonov said that what was now needed for a union to become a reality was “political will” on the part of Yeltsin, given that “certain members of the presidential team” were trying to halt the process of integration. Tikhonov said that a union between the two states was in Yeltsin’s interest, given that it would allow him “to atone for the break-up of the Soviet Union” (Russian agencies, May 2).

While it is doubtful, of course, that Yeltsin would follow the lead of opposition members, it is interesting to note that Tikhonov and Putin, a key Yeltsin loyalist, are both speaking about the union as if it were inevitable and even imminent. Some observers believe that Yeltsin could use a Russia-Belarus union as a way to extend his political life, much the way Slobodan Milosevic took over the leadership of the rump Yugoslav federation after his constitutional term as Serbian president expired. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, laid out such a scenario in an interview with the Spanish newspaper “El Pais” in February of this year.

Likewise, Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Institute of the CIS Countries, said on May 2 that the war in the Balkans had made the idea of a Russia-Belarus union “urgent” and noted that during the Yeltsin-Lukashenka talks last week, the two sides agreed to harmonize their positions by June 1.