Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 131

Preparations for a treaty joining Belarus with Russia would appear to be moving ahead very quickly. Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, speaking yesterday to a meeting of the Russian-Belarusan Executive Committee, the structure set up to work on the issue, said that a union treaty will be ready for signing by the autumn. The prime minister promised that Russia and Belarus would enter the 21st century as a “single unified state.” During the meeting, Belarusan Central Bank chairman Pyotr Prokopovich got rid of one big obstacle to the integration efforts, announcing that Belarus was ready to adopt the Russian ruble as its currency, to be phased in over an eight-year period (Russian agencies, July 7). This would obviate the need for amending Russia’s constitution, which states that the ruble is Russia’s currency, meaning that the circulation of the Belarusan currency would be illegal on Russian territory under the current constitution.

Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, meanwhile, toured Russia’s regions and met with various regional leaders yesterday, including Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, in an apparent effort to drum up support for the union. Some regions, particularly national republics such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, are nervous about any changes in Russia’s federal system which might lessen their autonomy and power. Indeed, Tatarstan’s Mintimer Shaimiev said that if the Kremlin intends to create a new state, “then Tatarstan will pretend to a role in this new state as a new state itself” (Russian agencies, July 7).

Despite the apparent acceleration of efforts to form a Russia-Belarus union, many observers remain skeptical that it will become real anytime soon. A number of key issues remain unresolved–such as whether the union will have a presidency and who would occupy it, and whether there will be a referendum on unification and when and how it would be carried out. The Kremlin, for its own domestic political reasons, might simply be putting on a show of working for a unified state without being really serious about it (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 7). On the other hand, while Kremlin insiders might be busy formulating contingency plans for keeping President Boris Yeltsin in power for a de facto third term, they might be operating in a “virtual reality” and such plans, including Russia-Belarus unification, could come to naught. If so, the Yeltsin regime is probably on its last legs and thus too weak to carry out such projects (Kommersant, July 8).

Whatever the case, Lukashenka is trying to make sure the dream becomes a reality. In a speech in the Russian city of Orenburg, the Belarus strongman said he would “insistently demand” that Russia follow through on its commitment to form a union. Lukashenka, who has often accused some Kremlin insiders of trying to sabotage efforts at unification, accused Anatoly Chubais, head of United Energy Systems, Russia’s electricity monopoly, of funding the opposition Communist Party in Belarus (Russian agencies, July 7).