Hospitalized Russian president Boris Yeltsin yesterday sent his Belarusan counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, a plan for unifying the two countries on the basis of the existing Russia-Belarus Community. As summarized by Yeltsin’s office, the plan’s first stage involves: "synchronizing" economic reforms; unifying the two countries’ customs codes and customs services and their civil and tax legislations; privatizing and auctioning off Belarusan industrial enterprises, beginning with the oil and gas enterprises; creating Russian-Belarusan "transnational enterprises;" placing Belarusan transport and communications systems under "common" Russian-Belarusan management; including Belarus in Russia’s energy and fuel system; forming a joint budget; merging the two monetary systems with a view to introducing a common currency; and phasing in "supranational" governing bodies in order to form a joint government following a referendum on unification.
The plan appears to envisage the referendum as a political corollary of the economic and legal steps. The official announcement on Yeltsin’s message does not specify a timetable for this process. The message proposes working out details of the plan at the next session of the Russia-Belarus Community Council, which is currently chaired by Lukashenko. (Itar-Tass, Interfax, January 13).
That community, formed by Yeltsin and Lukashenko in April 1996, has remained mainly on paper. Russian economic reformers have balked at saddling Russia’s budget with the burden of subsidizing the economy of Belarus. Russian industrial and financial interests, for their part, have sought to take over the major economic assets of Belarus, but have been thwarted by Lukashenko’s efforts to preserve the economics of state socialism in that country. "Synchronizing economic reforms," a desideratum championed by Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and other senior officials, is a modern-day label for an old-fashioned grab of Belarusan economic assets by state-backed Russian capital.
Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff Sergei Shakhrai yesterday reiterated his statement of last week that Russia-Belarus unification represents the most effective response to NATO’s planned enlargement eastward. (Interfax, January 13; see Monitor, January 9) Shakhrai added yesterday that the merger would also "help Russia psychologically overcome the bitterness of the Chechen events," implying that a de facto annexation of Belarus would compensate for a de facto loss of Chechnya. Shakhrai himself is considered in Russia as one of the main authors of the war in Chechnya.
Yeltsin’s initiative adds to the evidence that the Kremlin and the Russian government — rather than the Duma or the red-browns — are now spearheading Russian efforts to reestablish control over the former Soviet space.
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