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#11 - JRL 7069 - RAS 16

SOURCE. Natasha Chernyshova, BELARUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 03, February 12, 2003. Institute for War & Peace Reporting <info@iwpr.net>

The commentator remarks that "eight years after talks to unite Belarus and Russia began the two sides seem no closer to agreement" and suggests that the parties "seem to enjoy the process of unification more than they desire a final result."

In 1995 Russia and Belarus signed a friendship and cooperation treaty. In 1996 they agreed to form a Russia-Belarus "community." In 1997 there followed a treaty of union, envisaging a confederal structure in which each state would retain its sovereignty. Since then several supranational bodies have been set up, and a committee to draft a new constitution for the union is at work (though with no visible result).

Putin's ascent to power has further slowed the process, as unlike Yeltsin he does not have close ties with Belarus. In summer 2002 Putin offended Lukashenko by proposing that Belarus simply be incorporated into Russia, leading to a temporary rift.

Analysts argue that a number of difficult economic issues must be resolved before real progress can be made toward union:

* Belarus' heavy debts to Russia, particularly for natural gas and electricity supplies

* the absence of a common customs tariff policy

* the privatization of state-owned Belarus industry, which in the context of union would mean the buying up of all assets of any significant value by Russian oligarchs (except in the unlikely event that it is agreed to block such an outcome)

* the lack of clarity concerning how to implement the goal of introducing a common currency by 2008

Despite close economic and cultural ties between Russia and Belarus, public support in Belarus for union with Russia is neither unequivocal nor overwhelming. A recent survey by the International Institute for Socio-Economic Studies in Minsk found a narrow majority of respondents (54 percent) in favor of some kind of union, but nearly three-quarters were opposed to Belarus losing its independence altogether.

Thus in my view the crucial problem is political in character. The predominant attitude in Belarus, at the level of both elite and public opinion, is for a union but only one in which Belarus keeps a distinct identity and has equal (or at least not too unequal) rights with Russia. It is hard for Russia, as by far the stronger partner, to accept the constraints of such a partnership or even to take Belarusian pretensions seriously.

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