Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 86

Public discussion of the Belarus/Russia union is to continue until May 15. But although the issue is a major theme in the central Russian media, it is not making the front pages of the provincial Russian press. The Monitor’s correspondent in the Volga Region reports that there, the number one issue for most people is the struggle to survive in light of continuing wage arrears. Interest in what happens in Moscow, moreover, is low and getting lower, which helps to explain why subscriptions to national newspapers have fallen in the provinces.

Most people in the Volga Region support the idea of union with Belarus, our correspondent reports. However, there are distinct regional variations. Opinion differs in Saratov oblast, where the majority of the population are ethnic Russians, from those in nearby republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. In Saratov, the overwhelming majority of people are reported to be enthusiastic about union, which many see as the first good news they have had for years. Unlike the Moscow intelligentsia, they are unconcerned by reports of Belarusan president Lukashenko’s authoritarian tendencies, and some admire Lukashenko, seeing him as more decisive than Yeltsin. Yeltsin by contrast is viewed by many as an ineffectual "new Brezhnev," a man for whom they were tricked into voting last year.

Our correspondent says that in Tatarstan many members of the titular Tatar population are taking a strong if guarded interest in the proposed union. Many Tatars pin their hopes for the future on the idea of full independence for the republic, and view Belarus’ evolving relationship with Russia as a bellwether of their own prospects. If Belarus becomes (as Yegor Gaidar and others have suggested it should) a member of the Russian Federation, Tatarstan’s hopes for future independence will be crushed. If Belarus and Russia form a confederation, however, Tatarstan will argue that its special status as a non-signatory of the Russian Federation Treaty makes it eligible also to join the new confederation as an equal member. Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev stated this in a newspaper interview this week. (Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 26) Shaimiev’s outspokenness was unusual; our correspondent reports that discussion of Tatarstan’s hopes for independence is generally muted in the local media since such talks makes the ethnic Russian portion of the population very nervous.

Russian Exclave’s Governor Urges Troop Cut.