Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 128

The June 26-27 Russia-Belarus summit illustrated, as does its aftermath, the political stake vested by the leaders in the “union state” and the practical obstacles to building this edifice. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka co-chaired a Moscow session of the union state’s Higher Council. It was the fourth Putin-Lukashenka official meeting in the six months since Putin became president of Russia. Putin had, moreover, chosen Belarus as the first country he visited both as acting president and as president-elect, as well as treating Lukashenka as privileged partner in the framework of the CIS. The Belarusan dictator’s standing has clearly risen in Putin’s Kremlin. Both presidents, each for his own reasons, regard this unique interstate relationship as an asset in their respective internal political arenas. That calculation probably holds some validity in Belarus and–as opinion surveys consistently show–very little validity in Russia.

The Higher Council–which includes the prime ministers and key ministers of the two governments–changed the name of the Union of Belarus and Russia into “Union State.” The change reflects a snail’s pace advance toward creating that state, as well as attempting to indicate that the nascent state is open to accession by other countries. The session approved the Union State’s budget for 2000 amid indications that neither side is in a position to contribute its full share. That indigence explains the budget’s belated approval in mid-year. As a result, the first half of 2000 has seen virtually no action to implement the Action Program, which was signed along with a Treaty to Create a Union State in December 1999 (see the Monitor, December 9-10; the Fortnight in Review, December 17, 1999). That program is more meaningful and carries greater risks to Belarusan sovereignty, compared with the declarative Treaty. The June 25 meeting identified some unspecified “priority measures” to implement the Action Program–a clear sign that the sides now envisage only a selective implementation.

With Lukashenka’s willingness to accept the Russian ruble as a common currency notwithstanding, monetary unification did not advance because of Lukashenka’s insistence that the Belarusan National Bank be authorized to function as an emission center, along with Russia’s Central Bank, following the monetary unification.

The emphasis at this meeting fell, as usual, on foreign policy coordination and on joint security and military programs. The foreign affairs and defense ministers delivered detailed reports behind closed doors. Putin renewed assurances that “Russia will continue raising her voice to defend Belarus in international forums.” At Lukashenka’s initiative, the leaders agreed to hold elections to a Union parliament in late 2001, after–not before–the 2001 presidential election in Belarus. That sequence means that Moscow will want to see Lukashenka reelected as president in order to stage-manage the follow-up elections in Belarus to a Union parliament.

Lukashenka, for his part, emphatically endorsed Putin’s recent initiatives to create in Russia a highly centralized, “vertical structure of power” in Russia (see the Monitor, June 9, 12). He described those initiatives as convergent with his own “vertical model” in Belarus and, thus, apt to advance the unification of Russia and Belarus. Putin’s appointee as the union’s State Secretary, Pavel Borodin, has also spoken more than once about a “convergence” of the political and economic systems of Russia and Belarus as a concomitant of their unification. The session in Moscow resolved to fund 100 to 120 positions on the union state’s Permanent Committee, chaired by Borodin and vested with executive powers. And it funded from the Union budget 217 places for Belarusan officers and cadets to enroll in Russian military academies this year (Itar-Tass, RIA, Belarusan Television, June 25-28; see the Monitor, January 17, 24, February 7, 14, March 1, April 17, May 12, 31; the Fortnight in Review, March 3, April 28).