Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 198

On October 21, a draft version of the Constitutional Act of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was drawn up, based on two houses: a House of Representatives (103 members, including 28 from Belarus); and a House of the Union (36 senators and 36 deputies with an equal number from each state). The Union State would have a prime minister, but as yet it is unclear whether it would have a president. The draft will now be sent to the Supreme Council of the Union State, which could in theory sanction referendums in both countries on its acceptance (RIA-Novosti, Moscow Times, October 21).

The development of the Union State has raised fears that Belarus may lose its independence. However, many analysts remain skeptical of the future of the Russian-Belarus Union (RBU). Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov is cited as stating that the RBU is a useful instrument for Lukashenka to claim political legitimacy, but it also reflects Russia’s lack of a clear policy toward Belarus. The key figure in the formation of the RBU is its controversial State Secretary, Pavel Borodin, a man involved in a money laundering scandal in 2001 and who spent time in a New York prison cell. Borodin has advised Russian president Vladimir Putin to follow the example of Lukashenka and conduct a referendum on running for a third term in office. He also maintains that elections will be held for the first president of the RBU in 2006, with Putin as the main candidate, and Lukashenka as the candidate for vice-president. If that were to happen, then Putin could remain the president, in theory, until 2013 (Belorusy i Rynok, October 3).

One of the mysteries of the RBU has been the lack of publicity to date about the draft of the Constitutional Act. Evidently there are four variants, none of which has been published, despite claims that the Act would be subjected to broad public discussion. United Civic Party chairman Anatol Lyabedzka maintains that the discussion is essentially a dialogue between the two circles of power: that around Putin and that around Lukashenka: “99% of citizens of Belarus have never seen or read the Constitutional Act. They cannot even imagine what it consists of.” Lyabedzka believed that October would be a crucial month in which Lukashenka must accept the Kremlin’s proposals or alienate Russia (Narodnaya volya, October 12). But in fact further delays occurred and no referendums are likely to take place before 2006.

Another opposition observer, Uladzimir Hlod, states that Moscow analysts believe Lukashenka is backed into a corner. He has three options according to this scenario: to follow the fate of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic; to emigrate and end his political career; or to unite with Russia quickly. In turn, Russia needs the Union State in order to legitimize the future political career of Putin (Narodnaya volya, October 12). Thus implicitly the RBU could bring an end to the career of Lukashenka while ending the independent existence of Belarus.

General Valery Fralou offers yet another perspective. He comments that the Belarusian opposition adheres basically to the ideas of the Popular Front, and its initial leader Zyanon Paznyak in particular, i.e. that Russia is an empire that is constantly dwelling on the question of how to seize Belarus. The Belarusian opposition therefore chooses to cooperate not with the Russian authorities but with the Russian opposition, even though Belarus is 100% dependent on Russian gas, and 90% on Russian oil (a slight exaggeration). Russian energy policy, in his view, could have a critical impact on living standards in Belarus. If Lukashenka is to be removed from office in 2006, Fralou states, then it would be necessary to make some moves toward Russia. As an economically dependent state, Belarus cannot avoid such a course, even with allies in the West (Narodnaya volya, October 20).

Confusion over the real significance of the RBU is evident. Adding to the mix is the perspective offered by Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Russian Yabloko party, that Russia is satisfied with the Lukashenka regime and any thoughts that Russia might support democratic processes there are simply illusions (Narodnaya volya, October 20). However, it may be more logical for Russia to wield influence over its neighbor without formal incorporation, which would bring formidable economic obstacles — not least the protracted issue of a common currency, the existence of a large state sector in the Belarusian economy, and the complex taxation laws in Belarus. Consequently, the frequent delays in the formulation of the RBU are unlikely to trouble Moscow unduly.

On the Belarusian side, Lukashenka is both the architect of the RBU and the figurehead for Belarusian independence. He defends the role of the Belarusian National Bank and its right to issue currency, which he has always linked to the issue of sovereignty. He defends the “national rights” of his country, and he has described the attitude of Putin toward Belarus in the past as “humiliating” and “unacceptable” (Pravda, September 17, 2002). The issue will not go away, but it does not appear close to resolution either, perhaps because both sides prefer it that way. The only true believer in the RBU is Borodin.