Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 218

The process of creating a union between Russian and Belarus is moving forward quickly. A meeting yesterday of the Russia-Belarus Union Treaty’s Executive Council was attended by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Belarus Prime Minister Sergei Ling. After the meeting, Putin, who is the Executive Council’s chairman, said that “we would like very much the treaty to be ratified by the sitting State Duma”–meaning, presumably, prior to the first session of the new Duma early next year–and that “in the beginning of next year we would like to start forming the Union’s structures” (Russian agencies, November 22). Elections for the Duma are set for December 19. Moderate supporters of unification, such as Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Vladimir Lukin, have argued that the union treaty, which Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are scheduled to sign on November 26, should be ratified by the new Duma, in order to give the treaty greater credibility and legitimacy. Other supporters of unification, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, have said that the treaty should be ratified by the outgoing Duma.

The fact that Putin is pushing for quick ratification of the document gives some credence to the theories that the Kremlin may try to use a Russia-Belarus Union to give some sort of new political role to President Boris Yeltsin and, perhaps, to members of his inner circle. Last week, Vitaly Tretyakov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya gazeta, one of the newspapers in the media empire of Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, wrote that he had heard Putin himself say that Yeltsin would play some sort of role in providing Putin, the man he has designated to succeed him as Russian head of state, with political protection against Lukashenka (see the Monitor, November 17).

The treaty set to be signed on November 25 will reportedly set up something resembling a confederation, with a Supreme State Council to include the presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary speakers of both countries. One of the presidents will serve as chairman of the Council. Lukashenka has offered it to Yeltsin first. A two-chamber union parliament will be elected, in which representatives from both countries will initially have equal representation, after which Russian deputies will outnumber their Belarusan counterparts by three to one. Russian and Belarusan citizens will get dual citizenship.

Once the union treaty goes into force, corrections will have to be made in the constitutions of both Russia and Belarus, and it might have to be put to a referendum. Putin admitted yesterday that there are “different points of view” on the pace of integration and various points in the treaty–as well as “the scope of the document to be signed”–and that the “upcoming painstaking work to implement the treaty may take several years.” He said, however that “there is no opposition in Russia” to the treaty.

Indeed, several years ago, leading “liberals” then in the Russian government, including Anatoly Chubais, at that time a first deputy prime minister, were said to be against a Russia-Belarus union and to be working actively against supporters of integration in Russia’s power structures. Today, however, politicians like Chubais, who now heads the United Energy Systems, along with his allies in the Union of Right-wing Forces, have been mum on the issue, even with the signing of a union treaty imminent. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has warned that Yeltsin may try to use such a union to prolong his power, and has said that while he supports a union with Belarus in principle, a union with the government of Lukashenka, whom Yavlinksky says is an illegitimate leader, would rob the Belarusans of their sovereignty and would be dangerously destabilizing. Chubais recently called Yavlinsky a “traitor” for advocating a ceasefire in Chechnya (see the Monitor, November 10).