Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 3 Issue: 8

The Fortnight in Review

Russia signed two important agreements during the past two weeks: a historic political agreement with the NATO alliance, and a charter of union with neighboring Belarus.

Springtime in Paris: the Russia-NATO founding act

In a ceremony that its participants hailed as marking the end of the Cold War, Russian president Boris Yeltsin joined the leaders of NATO’s sixteen member-states in Paris on May 27 for the long-awaited signing of a political agreement between Moscow and the Western military alliance — the Russia-NATO Founding Act. The agreement, which followed four months of intense formal negotiations between Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov and NATO secretary general Javier Solana, and several years of more general and often acrimonious political jousting between the two sides, should clear the way for NATO to begin the process of admitting new members at the alliance’s July summit in Madrid. It also signified, symbolically at least, Moscow’s acquiescence to the enlargement process and its decision, arrived at only grudgingly, to maintain formal and friendly relations with the alliance despite Moscow’s often visceral opposition to NATO’s enlargement plans.

A glass half-full

Unable to halt enlargement and seeking instead to "minimize its consequences," Moscow had sought since the beginning of negotiations a political agreement that would give Russia both decision making prerogatives equal to those of NATO members, as well as formal and binding assurances that NATO would deploy neither nuclear nor conventional forces in the newly admitted member-states. In the end, Moscow was not fully satisfied on either point. The agreement establishes a consultative council — the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council — that will have a permanent secretariat and that will meet twice a year at both foreign minister and defense minister level, as well as monthly at ambassadorial level. Russia is to be represented by a permanent ambassador. The council, which may also be convened in the event of a crisis, affords Russia "a voice but no veto" in NATO affairs.

Section IV of the Founding Act, which deals with political-military matters, was negotiated most contentiously in the weeks leading up to the May 27 signing. With regard to nuclear forces, the document restates NATO’s often-voiced pledge that it has "no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." As regards conventional forces, the agreement refers at some length to ongoing negotiations in Vienna on adaptations to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Within this context, the document states that NATO is entitled to ensure the security of newly admitted member- states through "the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" — a formulation designed to give the alliance flexibility in working with new member while assuring Moscow that "substantial" conventional forces will not be deployed on their territory.

The end of history?

Despite a nearly uninterrupted flow of comments condemnatory of NATO enlargement from Moscow in the days and weeks leading up to the signing, the May 27 ceremony in Paris was marked by amicability and by a promise of future cooperation between the alliance and Russia. Yeltsin was reported to be in particularly fine form and, despite a brief reference to Moscow’s continued opposition to expansion, described the Founding Act as "a historic agreement and our mutual achievement." In a goodwill gesture that was perhaps richer in symbolism than substance, Yeltsin surprised those present when he announced that Russia would disarm all its nuclear missiles targeted at NATO states. Kremlin sources scrambled to clarify that Yeltsin meant only that Moscow would take those missiles off of combat alert and would have their targeting programs erased — a step of considerably less significance.

For all the goodwill on display in Paris, however, it seems likely that tensions between NATO and Moscow will continue to boil, and periodically erupt, well into the future. Not unexpectedly, Russian leaders have continued to warn that Moscow would rethink its relations with NATO — agreement or not — should the West decide to grant NATO membership to any of the former Soviet republics, and particularly to the Baltic states. Perhaps equally indicative of Moscow’s strategy were comments made by Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky on May 20, only days after the successful conclusion of the NATO-Russia political negotiations, asserting that Russia would continue to contest interpretation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. That, and such other actions by Russian leaders as Yeltsin’s decision to submit the Founding Act for approval to a possibly hostile Russian parliament — a seemingly unnecessary action given the agreement’s non- binding character — suggest that Moscow is now simply shifting its battle against NATO to other fronts.

Yeltsin and Lukashenko sign union charter

Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko met in the Kremlin on May 23 to sign the charter of a Russia-Belarus Union. Hard bargaining continued until the last moment, with differences centering on the nature of the would-be union. Lukashenko wanted a limited economic union essentially amounting to Russia’s subsidizing of Belarus’ unreformed economy. He expressed some interest in a political union — real or symbolic — but only as long as he would be guaranteed the top leadership post. Moscow was primarily interested in securing a legal basis for Russian capital to acquire economic assets in Belarus and in getting a commitment to a political union entailing the gradual, Kremlin-controlled accession of Belarus to Russia. Where the interests of the two sides coincided was in their consensus on developing a military alliance in ostensible response to NATO’s enlargement.

Economic constraints

Throughout the negotiations, each side pursued its own agenda. Lukashenko described his concept of a union between two independent and equal states. His insistence on retaining full Belarusan sovereignty seemed at first sight illogical. In fact, it reflected Lukashenko’s parallel interests in an economic "union" and in perpetuating full personal control of Belarus. Proposals voiced by a number of Russian politicians that Belarus or its six constituent regions might simply be attached to Russia with the status of Federation subject(s) enabled Lukashenko to pose as a defender of Belarusan statehood and as a moderate proponent of union. Proposals along those lines were voiced by reformers in the Russian government such as First Deputy Premiers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, and by several of the presidents of Russia’s constituent republics. Some Russian observers — and as Lukashenko himself — regarded these proposals as a Machiavellian attempt to alienate Belarus and torpedo the union. However, Russian government reformers opposed not the union as such, but a union on Lukashenko’s terms that would saddle Russia with economic burdens and hinder its reforms. The reformers’ second objective — which they shared with officials distinctly less committed to reform, such as Deputy Premier Valery Serov, who led the Russian negotiating team — was Russia- Belarus "legislative unification" to open the way for Russian capital to establish dominant positions in Belarus.

Yeltsin steered clear of onerous economic commitments to Belarus, managing at the same time to attain a set of political objectives that overlapped with those of Russia’s Communist and nationalist opposition. As outlined by Yeltsin’s aide Sergei Shakhrai, who played a key role in drafting the Union Charter, those objectives included: laying the basis of a political-military alliance with Belarus; creating a functional nucleus within the nonfunctional CIS and attracting other former Soviet republics to it; guaranteeing Russian access to the "western borders of the former USSR," not least for unimpeded oil and gas exports to the West via Belarus in circumvention of Ukraine; lending substance to the "Slavic" dimension of post-Communist Russia’s would-be "state ideology"; and establishing common ground with the Russian opposition as part of a search for national political consensus.

Charter watered down

The conflicting agendas of the two sides ultimately produced a negotiated compromise: an essentially declarative charter that largely satisfies both sides but falls short of creating or even envisaging an actual union. The charter does not mention the goal of creating a single state, which Yeltsin’s representatives insisted upon during the negotiations and for which Yeltsin himself called as recently as May 14. The document envisages the introduction of union citizenship later on, not as an immediate option as previous drafts had stipulated.

The charter establishes the principle of one-country-one-vote in the union’s joint bodies. Those are: a Supreme Council chaired alternately by the presidents, an Executive Committee co-chaired by the prime ministers, and a Parliamentary Assembly comprised of 36 deputies from each country. Their decisions will be valid only if approved by both sides, which gives each side the right of veto. In the Supreme Council that system takes the form of one- president-one-vote, requiring that decisions be signed by both presidents. The veto suits both presidents. Lukashenko is on his guard against encroachments on his sovereign prerogatives by Kremlin officials; while Yeltsin and his team of reformers need the safeguard of a presidential veto against a potential alliance of Russian leftists with Lukashenko’s men in union bodies. The document reportedly fails to regulate the presidents’ succession as alternate chairmen of the Supreme Council and the duration of their terms in that capacity. The joint bodies’ decisions apply to the domains of common competence of the two countries — that is, foreign and military policy, formation of a single economic space, and social protection. All three top joint bodies will be permanently headquartered in Moscow, but the Parliamentary Assembly will convene alternately in the two countries. Lukashenko dropped earlier proposals to place the three headquarters in various combinations of Minsk, Moscow and Smolensk (lying in western Russia close to the border with Belarus).

The document envisages creating conditions for gradual introduction of a common currency, use of market mechanisms to integrate the two countries’ economies, protection of private property, free competition, and investors’ rights in both countries. The Russian side urged theses provisions primarily to promote the interests of potential Russian investors. The Charter also provides for common energy, transportation and communications systems and for several jointly- financed industrial programs. These provisions mainly reflect official Minsk’s hopes for a Russian economic bailout. Each side managed to dilute the language of the provisions desired by the other side.

At the Kremlin’s initiative, the charter includes guarantees of freedom of speech and of the media, freedom of activity for political parties, and observance of human rights in accordance with the two countries’ constitutions and international obligations. Although there is no binding commitment or enforcement mechanism, this part of the charter appears designed to cater to international public opinion and to provide the Kremlin with some leverage in conflicts between Lukashenko and his domestic opponents. Initial reports were unclear about the mooted creation of a joint court to examine allegations of human rights violations in either country. On the other hand, Moscow agreed to set up, "on a priority basis," a jointly-controlled television and radio company to carry news and reportage from either country for the benefit of the other. Lukashenko insisted on this measure in the apparent hope of countering Russian media criticism of himself and his regime.

The charter abounds in Soviet-era rhetoric about unity of fraternal peoples and future prosperity through common exertions. On the whole, the vague wording and the absence of binding commitments or enforcement mechanisms are likely to render the document ineffective. It may even turn into a source of disputes when the Kremlin’s and Lukashenko’s interests diverge on issues poorly regulated by the charter.

Ratification in Belarus to be invalid

Russia’s Communist- and nationalist- dominated Duma welcomed the union in its present form and expressed its approval of the Kremlin’s performance. Schooled in Soviet constitutional theory and Communist tactics, Duma and Communist Party leaders favor a stage-by-stage approach to creating the union and observance of formal constitutional trappings with regard to Belarus, including a "democratic" referendum on union. Moreover, Russia’s Communist and nationalist opposition echoes loud and clear the government’s murmured view that the existing relationship with Belarus amounts to a geopolitical boon for Russia in Europe even short of a formal union. Last but not least, the Russian opposition is interested in preserving Lukashenko’s existing power base and his ability to snipe at Yeltsin from the other side of the state border. Russian oppositionists would not, however, welcome Lukashenko as a contender in Russia itself, where he would be competing for the leftist and nationalist vote if a real Union were created in the near future. The Belarusan parliament will undoubtedly ratify the Union Charter with virtual unanimity, but the exercise will lack legal validity. That parliament is unelected; Lukashenko "formed" it last December after unlawfully disbanding the elected parliament. While Russia recognizes Lukashenko’s parliament, most democratic countries and international organizations continue to recognize the disbanded parliament and its leaders.

The Belarusan opposition has announced that it will not recognize the ratification by an unlawful parliament which is not recognized internationally. The Belarusan opposition encompasses a wide array of political parties and independent organizations. This coalition has shown considerable strength in a series of mass rallies and demonstrations in Minsk against union with Russia and for democracy. Lukashenko himself has acknowledged that support in Belarus for unification with Russia had plummeted "from 90 percent to 62 percent." He may well have been citing Belarusan KGB information, as he sometimes does on sensitive issues, though he did not identify his source. The strength of the opposition partly explains Lukashenko’s efforts to portray himself as champion of Belarusan sovereignty: he needs to defuse internal resistance to a possible loss of that sovereignty.

The situation in Minsk calmed down in the last two weeks as it became clear that the act of union in Moscow was going to be largely rhetorical. This outcome ensures at least a temporary reprieve for Belarusan sovereign statehood, a chance for the democratic opposition to expand outside Minsk despite police obstruction, and an opportunity for international organizations and Western governments to work with those who want to safeguard the country’s independence.

Russia tightens its belt

Russia’s first deputy premier Anatoly Chubais has warned that the country faces an economic crisis so serious that it could destroy the state. On May 19, the Russian government unveiled a seven-point plan to tackle the crisis. Billed as the "main tasks for the immediate future," the plan turned out to be something of a rag-bag of measures. The government pledged: (1) to pay off public sector wage arrears not by printing money but by forcing tax-laggards such as the gas and electricity monopolies to pay their debts to the exchequer; (2) to reform the welfare system so as to channel benefits to those who really need them and not, as at present, to rich and poor alike; (3) to pull Russia out of its 7-year recession and boost industrial and agricultural production by lowering charges for utilities and reducing interest and tax rates; (4) to encourage regional and local initiative while at the same time ensuring that the regions pay their taxes to the federal budget; (5) to root out corruption in the civil service; (6) to live in accordance with its means by cutting public spending, reducing the bureaucracy and drafting a realistic federal budget for 1998; (7) to carry out these policies openly and honestly and to explain them to the public. President Yeltsin claimed credit for the seventh point which, he said, he added to the government’s original list of six.

Chubais predicted that, if these measures were carried out, economic growth would begin in 1998. He told journalists on May 19 that 1997 had seen the first increase in gross domestic product and industrial production since Russia launched its reforms in 1992. GDP fell by 6 percent in 1996 but the first four months of 1997 had seen growth of 0.6 percent over the same period the year before, Chubais said.

The Communist-dominated Duma was in no mood to cooperate, however. It passed a vote denouncing the government’s management of the economy and refused to vote on the government’s revised 1997 federal budget and instead declared on a two- week recess. Chubais, the man behind the budget revisions, brushed the Duma’s objections aside, saying the government would press ahead with its proposed spending cuts regardless. The Russian media speculated that this time, the Duma had gone too far and President Yeltsin would soon find a pretext to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. One of Russia’s leading daily newspapers, Moskovsky komsomolets, claimed that the government’s seven-point plan contained at least one additional, secret clause: to dissolve the Duma and call fresh elections under new electoral regulations which, by eliminating voting by party- lists, would reduce the influence of the opposition.

At present, 225 members of the 450-seat Duma are elected by majority vote in single-member constituencies, while a further 225 are elected according to party-lists, with seats being assigned by proportional representation to any party that scores more than 5 percent of the vote. The original aim of this system was to encourage the formation of viable political parties and to ensure some representation for the wide variety of interests of the Russian population. However, Russia’s fledgling democracy has still not given birth to mass political parties other than the Communist Party, which regularly collects one- third of the popular vote. The absence of a cohesive centrist or right-wing party to challenge the Communists has left them the dominant force in the Duma and weakened the government’s ability to pass legislation other than by presidential decree. There have recently been hints that the Kremlin is toying with the idea of electoral reform as a means of tackling this problem, though it is not clear that abolishing the party-list system would give the results for which the government is hoping.

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