Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 14

Boris Yeltsin has gone on his annual summer vacation. But the head of state’s time-out has done little to calm the increasingly turbulent waters of Russian politics as the start of election season approaches. Indeed, although the campaign season officially gets underway in the autumn, the Kremlin has already taken a few bold steps clearly connected to December’s parliamentary vote and the presidential contest, scheduled for June of next year. True, one of the most decisive moves the Kremlin and the government made over the last week involved something which, at least on the surface, would appear only tangentially related to the elections. That is Russia’s proposed union with Belarus. Many observers, however, believe the move is aimed at finding a way around the elections’ spirit, if not their letter.

In the wake of loud public complaints from Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that Russia was not serious about consummating a merger with his republic, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin announced he had been ordered by Yeltsin to oversee rapid integration with Belarus, and that a union treaty would be ready for signing by the fall. Belarus Central Bank Chairman Pyotr Prokopovich, meanwhile, announced that Minsk would gradually phase in the Russian ruble as its currency–a step which would remove one of the main constitutional obstacles to a merger for the Russian side.

While Stepashin’s announcement by no means signified that the merger was a done deal, it certainly suggested that the Kremlin was making sure that the merger could take place, if need be. Indeed, many observers noted that the only plausible explanation for the Kremlin’s unexpected great leap forward vis-a-vis Belarus, after five years of relative lethargy concerning integration, was that it wanted to keep open the option of Yeltsin assuming a role in a new union government–perhaps armed forces commander-in-chief–which would in turn prolong the life of the Kremlin inner circle and the powerful business interests connected to it. At any rate, the Kremlin’s sudden ardor for Lukashenka’s state clearly could not have been motivated by a deep commitment to democratic governance. Some of Yeltsin’s long-time democratic supporters, such as State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, openly began to worry about the Kremlin’s union plans, while other democrats, like Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, lambasted the idea as a dangerously irresponsible political adventure.