Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 162

Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his closest Russian allies are seething in the wake of the August 30 session of the Council of Ministers of the Russia-Belarus Union State. Held in Moscow and chaired by Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the session demonstrated the inability of an impoverished and chaotic Russia to organize the economic bailout of Belarus. The Russian Pavel Borodin, state secretary of the Russia-Belarus union state, went so far as to use the term “bardak”–a semi-obscene, popular Russian usage denoting “total mess”–at a post-mortem briefing in Moscow. The embittered Borodin even questioned the strides made on military cooperation; on that point he was corrected by a Russian official present.

With senior members of the Russia-Belarus Parliamentary Assembly attending, the common Council of Ministers determined that the union state’s budget has actually received only 21 percent of the funds originally approved for the first eight months of this year; and “not a kopek” in August. The programs to create a “Union television set” and to co-produce diesel engines have received only 10 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of the “union” funds originally budgeted for January-August 2000. Those are Minsk’s top priorities, intended to rescue the rusting flagships of Soviet-era industry in Belarus. There is no money, either, for another pet program of Lukashenka’s–the creation of a “union” television channel to propagandize the union and at least partly offset the negative coverage of the situation in Belarus by Russian television channels.

Russia and Belarus are supposed to contribute 65 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of the union budget. That ratio obviously favors Russia and Lukashenka expects Moscow to correct that imbalance by coming up with additional funds. At the Moscow session, the Belarusans complained that the Russian partners had met only a small part of their obligations to the union budget thus far, but the Russians countered that the Belarusan partners had done no better. The common Council of Ministers was unable to take any corrective decision with regard to the remaining months of the year.

Lukashenka had, before the session, insisted on tangible progress toward introducing a common Russian-Belarusan currency, preparatory to the creation of a single currency. With the Belarusan ruble rapidly depreciating, Lukashenka wants Moscow, in effect, to assume the burden of deficit-financing the Belarusan economy. The Russian side, however, rejected this approach out of hand at the Moscow session. It only agreed on a timeframe for introducing a common currency by 2005 and a single currency by 2008–targets too distant for any practical relevance.

As a vague silver lining for Minsk, the Russians agreed in principle to provide two loans for stabilizing the Belarusan ruble. Their value is US$200 million and 4.5 billion Russian rubles, respectively. But this is only a draft agreement, subject to approval at various levels in Russia and to fulfillment of as yet undisclosed financial conditions by Minsk. Ultimate approval and disbursement of these loans appears doubtful.

Diehard supporters of the union in both delegations called for revising the December 1999 treaty–signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenka–which created the union state. These officials and parliamentary deputies complained that the treaty’s provisions are too vague and insufficiently binding. “It enshrines talk about the union, rather than a mechanism for building the union,” according to Vladimir Aksyonov, executive secretary of the union state’s parliamentary assembly. Several assembly members, attending the Moscow session, called for a special session of the assembly this autumn to “impart real substance” to the treaty. Lukashenka had argued all along that the treaty had not gone far enough (see the Monitor, December 8-10, 1999).

Apart from financial straits, it is “lack of political will in Moscow” which the Belarusan representatives consider responsible for the union’s impasse. Under the December 1999 arrangements, the union’s council of ministers was supposed to create a standing committee; and the executive secretariat under Borodin was supposed to be given substantial powers and a 300-strong staff. But none of this has been done, prompting Lukashenka to gripe that Borodin is being prevented from accomplishing his mission, and Aksyonov to insist that “we must have a union bureaucracy, one that would mature and stand on its own feet.”

In Minsk, Lukashenka used the visit of Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, to vent his angry disappointment with the Russian government. “We see an unprecedented regress of the union. The men, who used to impede its progress, have now begun actually to dismantle it.” In lengthy remarks, broadcast live, Lukashenka portrayed Belarus as the most loyal of Russia’s allies, and himself as the president most loyal to Russia among the CIS countries’ leaders. He found it incomprehensible that Putin–whom he described as a “convinced supporter of the union with Belarus”–should fail to call to order the Russian officials who sabotage that union” (Itar-Tass, RIA, NTV, Belarusan Television, August 29-31; see the Monitor, January 17, 24, February 7, May 12).

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