Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 67

The two documents signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus in the Kremlin on April 2 in effect defer by several weeks a decision on the future of Belarusan statehood. The two documents are a Union Treaty that is couched in generalities, and a Memorandum of Understanding about working out a Union Charter to define the powers of Union organs. The charter, to become an integral part of the treaty, may largely determine whether Belarus remains a sovereign state, and if so to what degree.

The Union Treaty stipulates that the Russia-Belarus Community (created by Yeltsin and Lukashenko on April 2, 1996, and which has thus far remained only on paper) is being transformed into a Union of the two states. Each state retains its independence, constitution, state symbols, and other attributes of sovereignty. The union’s goals are described as the creation of a common legal system and e strengthening the two countries’ "political, economic, and military relations of fraternity." The union seeks also to "ensure security and maintain a high level of defense capability." The treaty is valid for an "unlimited duration," subject to ratification (by which bodies is not specified), and open to accession by other states.

The Memorandum of Understanding envisages that the Union Charter, which defines the union’s powers relative to the constituent states’ powers, will be publicized within 10 days of the signing of the Treaty and submitted for public debate until May 15. A joint commission, co-chaired by Russian deputy prime minister Valery Serov and the head of Belarusan president Aleksandr Lukashenko’s administration, Mikhail Myasnikovich, will then amend the draft Union Charter taking into account views expressed during the debate and submit the final draft to Yeltsin and Lukashenko by May 20. The Supreme Council of the Russia-Belarus Community — i.e., the two presidents, prime ministers, and chairmen of each country’s parliamentary chambers — will approve the final text of the Union Charter by May 25 and submit it for ratification along with the Union Treaty. (Itar-Tass, April 2)

Politically, the decision in the Kremlin would seem to evidence an intent to rush the process, as does the choice of Serov as Russian co-chairman. In the Russian debate on the scope and pace of unification with Belarus, Serov has been among the leading advocates of a rapid process, and he has suggested that the economic costs of union to Russia will be low. Other advocates of rapid unification — who include Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Yeltsin’s foreign policy adviser Dmitry Ryurikov, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergey Shakhray (a co-author of the documents), and influential foreign policy and security advisers — further describe a merger with Belarus as a geopolitical gain for Russia. They note, moreover, that the opportunity afforded by Lukashenko’s control of Belarus may be fleeting and irrecoverable if missed now. The short deadline of six weeks for reaching the ultimate decision also suggests that the hard-liners in the Kremlin and the government are prevailing over the economic reformers, who are concerned that the merger with Belarus will set back Russia’s own reforms.

Legally, the two documents contain serious flaws. The treaty does not include any termination provisions. While stipulating the continued validity of the two constitutions, the treaty also provides for close military cooperation, despite the constitutionally-mandated neutrality of Belarus. Nor is it specified which bodies will ratify the documents. Those bodies will presumably have to be either the two parliaments or the Russia-Belarus Community’s Parliamentary Assembly. In either eventuality, the Belarusan parliamentarians will be lacking valid credentials. They were in no way popularly elected, but were appointed to a legislature which was officially "formed" by Lukashenko. The legislature lacks international recognition (except by the Kremlin and the Russian parliament). Indeed, international recognition continues to rest with the Belarusan parliament that was forcibly dissolved by Lukashenko. Finally, the five-week public "debate" in Belarus can not substitute for a legally valid process, and will be irrelevant in any event, owing to the totalitarian control over the media exercised by the regime there as well as other restrictions on political freedoms.

Important Personnel Changes Continue in Moscow.