On December 1 a session of the Supreme Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was scheduled to take place in Moscow. According to propaganda from the two sides, it was to be a significant occasion that, in contrast to the recent past, would produce real results. The meeting, however, never took place; and there are conflicting accounts of the reasons why.
One week ago, on November 24, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was interviewed by the French news agency Agence France Presse. During a wide-ranging interview, Lukashenka commented that relations with the European Union were taking root and that he hoped the new U.S. administration would bring about a more favorable environment for relations with Belarus. His country, he added, was a natural bridge for the conduit of energy resources between Russia and Europe. Ties with Moscow, moreover, would inevitably be close, because Belarusians and Russians were essentially “one people” (AFP, November 24). The statement only to increased expectations for the forthcoming Supreme Council.
A few days later, contradictory remarks came from the presidential administration in Minsk. With regard to recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Belarusian president declared that he would be happy eventually to recognize the two regions of Georgia, because they were de facto independent states. He would not do so, however, simply under pressure from Russia. Under instructions from the Kremlin, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov has been putting pressure on Belarus to take such action. On the same day, a Belarusian news agency quoted Lukashenka as stating that while he was prepared to anticipate a viable future for the Union State, it could occur only under conditions of equal relations. However, he continued, the Russian side was responsible for the slow progress made thus far, and many questions on the Constitutional Act remained unresolved. “The constitution must be constitutional,” and both sides had to be in a position to consider the neighboring country their home (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, November 27).
That Russia has baulked at some aspects of the proposed Union State is well known. Russia provides Belarus with loans on an almost annual basis in order for its western neighbor to meet the payments for Russian oil and gas. Furthermore, signals from the Kremlin are ominous. In discussing the possible loss of agreement among elite factions in Moscow as a result of the current economic impasse, a Western analysis has suggested that Russia might manufacture a crisis to bring about new unity or else expedite the union with Belarus. The Kremlin analyst Olga Kryshtanova, however, says that one possibility might be the creation of a mini-USSR that would join together Russia, Belarus, and South Ossetia, with Putin as the leader of this union (www.telegraph.co.uk, November 13).
On December 1 Russian sources reported that the meeting of the Supreme State Council would not take place and President Lukashenka would not even be coming to Moscow. This was the second cancellation within the past month. Originally the Council was to assemble on November 3, but after Presidents Lukashenka and Dmitry Medvedev met on October 25, the decision was made to postpone the gathering until December 1 (RIA Novosti, December 1). The two presidents had met earlier in Sochi and agreed on the establishment of a joint air defense system. Both sides have approved the text, which reportedly caters to a perceived threat from NATO using bases in Poland and the Baltic States (Belorusy i Rynok, November 24-December 1). So why was the Council delayed for a second time?
According to a Russian report gleaned from sources close to the Belarusian government, the key problem is the wording of the constitutional act, which the Belarusian side insists must be finalized before any major agreement can be signed. Lukashenka maintains that Belarus cannot hold a referendum to approve the document put forward by the Russian side, which is a weaker version of the original draft. Without specifying what particular issue irked him, Lukashenka said that the Belarusians would “disgrace” themselves if they held a referendum on this version. There have been three draft versions of the Constitution of the Russia-Belarus Union. Originally, the post of president was to have been occupied by the head of the Russian Federation with the Belarusian leader as vice-president; but the most recent version assigns such power to the Supreme State Council subordinated to a chairman elected by a general vote (Kommersant, December 1). With the ruble as the common currency, Belarus would clearly be a junior partner in the union.
One explanation of the latest dispute between Russia and Belarus is that Lukashenka is still angling for a stronger role for his country but is increasingly bereft of real bargaining power. As a result, the Russians are no longer amenable to suggestions that would enhance the Belarusian role in the Union State. In turn, Lukashenka cannot abandon this concept, which has been an integral part of his political platform for more than 12 years. Thus a stalemate has been reached. According to the Russian side, prospects for real negotiations were replaced by “a farce,” and Moscow is prepared to hold a meeting in the future only if there are real prospects for serious results. We should not hold our breath.