Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 103

In a Kremlin ceremony that followed down-to-the-wire negotiations, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko on May 23 signed the Charter of the Russia-Belarus Union. Each president successfully pressed his own agenda. Lukashenko managed to minimize his — and by implication his country’s — political subordination to Moscow, while Yeltsin avoided onerous economic commitments to Belarus as part of the union and at the same time laid the basis for a political-military alliance between the two countries.

The charter does not mention the ultimate goal of creating a single state, which Yeltsin had publicly demanded as recently as May 14 and upon which his representatives had insisted during the negotiations. The charter envisages the introduction of union citizenship later on, and not, as previous drafts had suggested, as an immediate option for citizens of the two countries. The charter stipulates the principle of one-side-one-vote in the union’s joint bodies: the Supreme Council chaired alternately by the presidents; the Executive Committee co-chaired by the prime ministers; and the Parliamentary Assembly, comprised of 36 deputies from either side. Decisions by these bodies shall be valid only if approved by both sides, in effect granting either of them a right of veto. In the Supreme Council this same safeguard is reflected in the principle of one-president-one-vote, which reformers in the Russian government pushed through to protect Yeltsin against a possible combination of Lukashenko and Russian leftists. Decisions by the joint bodies apply to the domains of common competence of the two countries — notably foreign and military policies, formation of a single economic space, and social protection. The three top joint bodies will be permanently headquartered in Moscow, with the Parliamentary Assembly meeting alternately in the two countries. The document reportedly fails to define the presidents’ succession order as alternate chairmen of the Supreme Council or the duration of their terms in that capacity.

The charter envisages creating conditions for the gradual introduction of a common currency, use of market mechanisms to unite the two countries’ economies, protection of private ownership, free competition, and investors’ rights in both countries. The Russian side urged theses provisions primarily with the interests of potential Russian investors in mind. Provisions on creating common energy, transportation, and communications systems, and on jointly-financed programs in several industrial sectors, mainly reflect official Minsk’s hopes for a Russian economic bailout. Each side managed to dilute the language of the provisions desired by the other side.

At the Kremlin’s initiative, the charter includes guarantees regarding freedom of speech and of the media, free activities of political parties, and observance of human rights in accordance with the constitutions and international obligations of the two countries. Although there is no binding commitment or enforcement machinery, this part of the charter appears designed to cater to international opinion and also to provide the Kremlin with political leverage in the political conflict between Lukashenko and his internal opponents. On the other hand, Moscow agreed to the creation — "on a priority basis" — of a television and radio company under joint control. Lukashenko has insisted on this in the hope of neutralizing Russian television criticism of his person and regime.

The charter is otherwise replete with Soviet-era rhetoric about unity of fraternal peoples. On the whole, the document’s vague wording and absence of binding commitments will render it ineffective and potentially even a source of disputes, except for those provisions on which the interests of the Kremlin and Lukashenko may coincide at any given time. The charter is subject to parliamentary ratification. Russia’s Duma, dominated by Communists and nationalists, is pleased with the document, and the parliament that Lukashenko "formed" last December is likely to respond similarly. The Belarusan opposition has announced that it will not recognize the ratification by an unlawful parliament that also lacks international recognition. (Russian and Western agencies, Belapan, May 23-25)

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