Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 5

The hegemonial aspirations unveiled by Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, seem to have emboldened the supporters of accession to the Russia-Belarus Union in some of the CIS member countries. Those supporters regard the union as the nucleus of a supranational structure that could, through accretions and recentralization, transform the CIS into an approximation of the USSR or the Russian Empire, one which would wield comparable political and military influence in Eurasia and recreate a vast, sheltered internal market.

While the Russia-Belarus Union represents a goal rather than a reality at present, it enables Russian-oriented groups in CIS countries to pose as advocates of multilateral integration; they do not have to call for outright reattachment to Russia. Yet their sights are clearly riveted on Moscow, not Minsk. Those political forces fall into two categories: first, Communist parties and other Red groups motivated by Soviet nostalgia; and, second, nationalist elements within the Russian diasporas, hoping to maintain or regain a privileged status in post-Soviet countries under Russia’s oversight. Both types of forces are currently active in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and were active until very recently in Ukraine.

Armenia constitutes a special case. In that country a reflexive orientation toward Russia feeds on distorted perceptions of the national history, unnecessarily constraining the country’s policy options today. With the recent ascendancy of hardliners in Yerevan, the goal of joining the Russia-Belarus Union is no longer confined to the Armenian Communist Party and leftist-ultranationalist groups. This past fortnight a multiparty initiative group, named the “Russia-Belarus-Armenia Union,” was established in the Armenian parliament. The twenty-three-strong group includes deputies from the Communist Party, the governing Republican Party, the co-governing People’s Party, the Republicans’ satellite known as the Stability parliamentary group and the Right and Accord party of Karabakh’s General Samvel Babaian.

The Armenian Communist Party, which has just reentered the government for the first time since 1990, is the only major party programmatically committed to pulling Armenia into the Russia-Belarus Union. The Communist leaders rather implausibly claim to have collected more than a million citizens’ signatures on a petition to that effect. Some of the holders of real power in Yerevan recently took steps toward setting up a military alliance of Armenia and Belarus, as an accompaniment to the Armenian-Russian military alliance (see below). The embattled president, Robert Kocharian, opposes this trend in a cautious manner, one designed to avoid an exacerbation of the conflict with his political rivals. Kocharian officially takes the position that the issue of Armenia’s accession to the Russia-Belarus Union is “not on the agenda at present.”

In Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan, the communist parties have included the goal of joining the Russia-Belarus Union in their respective programs for the parliamentary elections this February and March. Communist leaders and candidates are also airing the issue in electoral speeches. The Communist parties obtained first place in the Kyrgyz and second place in the Tajik elections, but did not gain any real influence on decisionmaking in either country. Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov had been willing in the recent past to join the Russia-Belarus Union, but abandoned that goal after being given to understand that his basket-case country is not welcome.

In Kazakhstan, Soviet-nostalgic and Russian nationalist organizations are calling for holding a referendum on the issue of Kazakhstan joining the Russia-Belarus Union. These organizations include the Communist Party, the LAD Slavic movement, the Union of Russian, Slavic and Cossack Associations (ARSK) and other organizations. Some of them are allied with the expatriate former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin and his People’s Republican Party. These groups have recently sponsored appeals to the presidents of Russia and Belarus, urging a faster pace of that union’s development and voicing these groups’ hope that Kazakhstan would join. During this past fortnight, they launched a signature-gathering initiative for the holding of a referendum in Kazakhstan on joining that Union. Several leaders of these groups publicized that initiative on special visits to Moscow.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev and law enforcement authorities reacted on February 16-17 in strong terms. Prosecutor General Yuri Khitrin, describing the referendum initiative as “destructive” and “destabilizing,” warned the organizers that such an action would “grossly violate the constitution and the laws.” Nazarbaev declared that “Kazakhstan will not join any unions and will not even consider it.” This, he said, is “not just a personal wish, it is the country’s choice. Independence and sovereignty is the issue number one for Kazakhstan. And that is that.”

In other CIS member countries, political support for joining the Russia-Belarus union is weak or nil at present. Red forces favoring accession seemed strong in Ukraine until recently. But President Leonid Kuchma’s reelection on an outspokenly pro-European platform dealt those forces a decisive setback.