Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 48

The Soviet-style kiss that opened a March 7 meeting between Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko in the Kremlin appeared also to have been the final warm moment of their latest encounter. The Russian and Belarusan presidents made no decisions and managed only to sign a document that rehashed old "integrationist" goals while lowering the rhetoric and adding some qualifications and reservations. As usual, Yeltsin and Lukashenko supported an enlargement of the Russia-Belarus Community’s powers, unification of civil law and tax codes, and creation of joint industrial companies. These are Moscow’s desiderata, designed to increase its economic and political influence in Belarus. The two also agreed on the formation of joint energy and transport-communications systems, and common financial, credit, and budget policies with a view to forming a currency union. These are Minsk’s desiderata, meant to obtain Russian economic assistance. Neither side has thus far been prepared to make unilateral concessions to the other.

In public remarks following the Kremlin meeting, Lukashenko and his foreign minister, Ivan Antanavich, stressed that economic "integration" as Minsk defines it would have to precede a political merger; that the latter is a long-term "process;" and that any future merger would be one between sovereign and equal states. (Interfax, Itar-Tass, March 7-8) The implication, which has been present all along in such remarks, is that Lukashenko might unite his country in some form to Russia — for a high economic price. A new implication, increasingly present in the Lukashenko regime’s rhetoric, is that political unification would somehow also have to preserve Belarusan statehood. Lukashenko could be wholly unrealistic in advocating, as he did again at this meeting, a Russia-Belarus association modeled on the European Union. Yet by setting that goal he is pushing the day of a Russia-Belarus merger into an indefinite future, or maximizing his bargaining leverage to bring about some kind of loose merger sooner on his own terms.

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