Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 76

Vladimir Putin made a political point by stopping in Minsk on his way to London and making Belarus the first country he visited after winning Russia’s presidential election. Putin’s talks with his counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 16 in Minsk focused on the implementation of the December 8, 1999 bilateral Treaty on the Creation of a Union state. Unlike the earlier, largely declarative Russia-Belarus unification treaties, the 1999 document is accompanied by an implementation program which includes specific economic and institution-building goals and timetables.

Setting the stage for Putin’s visit, Lukashenka surprised his country and foreign governments by calling for the formation of a 300,000-strong Russian-Belarusan joint group of forces, to be armed with up-to-date weaponry and to be stationed in Belarus. Unveiling the proposal in his annual address to parliament, Lukashenka justified it as a countermeasure to NATO’s eastward enlargement. The proposal would triple the strength of the already planned joint group of forces. It would also entail, as Lukashenka made clear, the stationing of those Russian troops on Belarusan territory, rather than introducing them there only for periodic joint exercises and in crisis or precrisis situations. If put into practice, the plan would bring to Belarus a Russian force more than double the size of the Belarusan military, which has fewer than 100,000 troops. Opposition leaders denounced the plan as violating the constitution–which enshrines the neutrality of Belarus and bans the stationing of foreign troops in the country–and as inviting a Russian military occupation in order to secure Lukashenka’s permanent hold on power.

Pavel Borodin, recently appointed by Putin as state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, and accompanying Putin to Minsk, outlined a plan at least as grandiose. According to Borodin, a consortium of German, French and Italian firms stands ready to invest approximately US$15 billion in the project of a transit corridor from the western border of Belarus to Moscow. The corridor, to consist of modern highway and railroad arteries, telecommunications and energy systems, could be financed in part through Russian oil and natural gas deliveries to Western Europe, with some of those deliveries going via Belarus, Borodin told the media in Moscow and Minsk. Borodin, who is wanted on an international arrest mandate in Switzerland in connection with a money laundering scandal, stated that he is personally negotiating with the European would-be investors, and that Belarusan government representatives were also involved in the round of talks which took place last week in Moscow.

Borodin’s project would seem to be a wishful extension of the European Union’s plan for a Paris-Berlin-Warsaw transit corridor. But he pointed out that the project would benefit the Russian and Belarusan states and their union. “Western investors look at our union with enormous hopes,” he went on, “and this is due in no small measure to the unique geopolitical location of Belarus, which we should use to our advantage.”

CIS countries would seem to partake of that hope, according to Borodin’s vision of the near- and medium-term future. He confidently predicted in Minsk that Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan will join the Russia-Belarus Union in the next three to four years.” And he dismissed the independence gained in 1991 by CIS countries as ultimately irrelevant: “The CIS may consist of many states, but the country [USSR] used to be a single one and so it remains in reality. It is primarily communists in those countries who favor joining the Russia-Belarus Union (see the Monitor, December 15-16, 1999, March 1; Fortnight in Review, December 17, 1999, March 3)”

On a more practical level, Putin and Lukashenka discussed financing joint industrial projects, in both the civilian and the military sectors; the indebtedness of Belarus for Russian natural gas; supplementary appropriations for the union’s 2000 budget, which has yet to be adopted; the as yet unfulfilled Belarusan request for a monetary stabilization loan from Russia, preparatory to monetary unification; and the elections to be held this coming autumn in both countries for the parliament of the Russia-Belarus Union State. Decisions on these issues are supposed to be made next week at the session of the union’s government.

Putin and Lukashenka equally insisted that the union requires a solid economic foundation as a precondition to political institution-building. But the two leaders do not mean the same thing by that phrase. To Lukashenka, it means that Russia should subsidize the economy of union partner Belarus. To the Russian government, the Russian oligarchs and–at least at this stage–to Putin that phrase means that Belarus should pull its own economic weight in the union, and should seriously consider paying its arrears by handing over industrial property and infrastructure to Russia. (Itar-Tass, April 6; BNS, April 12; Minsk Radio, Belarusan Television, Belapan, Russian Public Television, ORT, NTV, April 11-16; see the Monitor, December 9-10, 1999, January 17, 24, February 7, 14, March 1)