Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 97

A group of Russian politicians is launching a petition to demand a referendum on the proposed union of Russia and Belarus. (Itar-Tass, ORT, May 15) The initiative comes from Duma member Nikolai Gonchar, a passionate supporter of union, and the Democratic Party of Russia. They aim to collect 2 million signatures in support of a referendum asking, "Do you support the union of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus into a single federal state?"

Meanwhile, debate is raging within the Russian elite over the precise nature of the new union. President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged in a radio interview this week that the name and status of the union is now a serious bone of contention between Russia and Belarus. "Are we striving for a federal state? Or a single state, just a simple state, or some other option?" Yeltsin said. Acknowledging that such issues still needed to be worked out between himself and Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko, Yeltsin commented, "I think there will be a very high degree of closeness, at the level of a single state." (RTR, May 14)

Many of the presidents and governors of Russia’s republics and regions are leery of this proposal and keen to prevent the creation of a new state that would give Belarus — and its strong-willed president — a higher status than that which their own territories currently enjoy. Some warn that they will not tolerate Belarus as a "big brother." Tatarstan’s president, Mintimer Shaimiev, has warned with uncharacteristic bluntness that Belarus could turn into a "spoiled child" unless it is kept in its place alongside Russia’s republics and regions.

Shaimiev favors union and says he has no doubt it will go ahead, but he is concerned that not enough thought has been given to "life after union." He has backed up his remarks with the threat that, if the Russian and Belarusan presidents decide to set up a new federal or confederal state, Tatarstan will no longer consider itself bound by the 1994 bilateral treaty which it signed with the Russian Federation, and will want to renegotiate the deal, doubtless with terms even more favorable to itself than those it won in 1994. (NTV, May 14) Shaimiev’s misgivings are shared, according to Kommersant-daily, by the presidents of Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Kalmykia, and by the leaders of some of Russia’s most influential regions, including Governor Eduard Rossel of Sverdlovsk oblast, who would like to see Belarus join Russia either as a single subject of the federation or, on the level of its six provinces, as six new subjects of the federation. (Kommersant-daily, May 15)

Shokhin Eats His Words.