Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Troubled Neighbors Watch Belarus Rush into Russia's Arms Minsk's New Treaty with Moscow Doesn't Mean a Return of the Soviet Union, at Least Not Yet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Troubled Neighbors Watch Belarus Rush into Russia's Arms Minsk's New Treaty with Moscow Doesn't Mean a Return of the Soviet Union, at Least Not Yet

Article excerpt

FIVE years ago, when Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was a member of his country's parliament, he cast a lone dissenting vote of which he still boasts.

He voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But the union treaty with Russia that he will sign in Moscow next Tuesday falls short of his dreams, is not a welcome model for any other former Soviet republic, and hardly heralds the reconstruction of the USSR.

Just how tight the links between the two will be is not clear. The key question - how much authority will rest with a supranational "Supreme Council" - is still being negotiated.

But Mr. Lukashenko, who has long been pressing for closer ties with Russia, did not help his case by overstating it after talks last week with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

He emerged from that meeting full of bold proclamations of a new union, with a common budget, a single currency, and perhaps a common constitution. He was generally understood to be announcing a virtual merger of Belarus with its giant neighbor.

But his words were soon drowned out by the sound of Russian officials backing off. Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, was quick to stress that "the countries' state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity are recognized."

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin cautioned that the process of unifying currencies "may be long." And Yeltsin was characteristically blunt when he told reporters that there was no question of "forming a single state with Belarus.... Somebody has got things mixed up."

Yet Moscow and Minsk have gone further than any other governments in the former Soviet Union toward integrating their economies, and that is no coincidence, analysts here say.

For Belarus, a struggling country of 10 million, the motivation is wholly economic. "Belarus is in a tragic economic situation," says Irina Kobrinskaya, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "It had some key enterprises for the Soviet machine-building sector ... and now they have no market."

Worse off than most other Soviet republics, Belarus has been crippled by the breakup of the Soviet Union, where industries were designed to work as part of a USSR-wide pattern. Independence has left the country without raw materials or markets, and a lack of serious reforms has contributed to economic stagnation. …

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