Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 227

Russia President Boris Yeltsin and Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a treaty today forming a confederal Russian-Belarusan state. The relevant documents were signed during a meeting in the Kremlin of the Supreme Council of the Russian-Belarusan Union. Yeltsin was quoted as calling the agreement of “monumental importance” and saying that “unification of the two fraternal nations is voluntary and equitable.” Yeltsin also said there were no aims “of political expediency” in signing the agreement and reassured the West that the treaty was not aimed against anyone, “not even [U.S. President Bill] Clinton.” Lukashenka, for his part, said the meeting was of “historic and landmark significance.” The Supreme Council meeting was attended by, among others, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroev and State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Belarusan Prime Minister Sergei Ling (Russian agencies, December 8).

The union treaty was to have been signed last month, but the signing was postponed after Yeltsin fell ill with bronchitis and was subsequently hospitalized with pneumonia. Some observers speculated that Yeltsin’s illnesses were actually diplomatic, and that he in fact had gotten cold feet about signing the treaty. That impression was reinforced on December 6, when Yeltsin left the hospital and met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The day before, Lukashenka, clearly miffed over Yeltsin’s planned meeting with Kuchma, said that “if other international meetings go ahead, then the Russian president’s actions are absolutely incomprehensible” (Russian agencies, December 5).

With the union treaty destined to be signed, it was now Kuchma’s turn to be miffed: in an interview published yesterday in the French newspaper Le Monde, Kuchma said that while it was the “sovereign right” of the people of Russia and Belarus to unite, Russia would “suffer great losses from this union,” adding that Ukraine would not deviate from “building an independent and democratic state” (Reuters, December 8).

Some observers have said that the Russia-Belarus union will remain little more than a statement of intent. The treaty signed today indeed falls well short of setting up a full-fledged union state. The document gives official status to the union’s ruling Supreme Council, while other measures, such as unifying the two states’ currencies have been put off into the indeterminate future.

On the other hand, Kuchma’s comments about the union suggest that at least some critical observers worry that the treaty is more than just a piece of paper. In addition, the treaty’s signing has again revived speculation that the Kremlin is holding the union in reserve as a possible way of putting off elections in Russia. A Russian newspaper reported today that the signing of the treaty was postponed last month because two of Russia’s national republics–Tatarstan and Bashkortostan–had threatened to tear up the union agreements they have with Moscow and demanded representation in the union equal to that of Russia and Belarus. The same paper suggested that the Kremlin sees the formation of a new state out of Belarus, Russian and Russia’s national republics in reserve, in case there is a need to postpone or cancel the Russian elections. The same paper noted that this would effectively mean the end of the Russian Federation (Kommersant, December 8).

The Russia-Belarus union treaty must now be ratified by the State Duma. Vladimir Ryzhkov, head of the Russia is Our Home Duma faction, said today that debate over ratification of the treaty would probably begin December 13. The treaty is likely to be easily ratified, given that it is strongly supported by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which heads the largest faction in the Duma.