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Moscow Times
November 1, 2005
Plans for Russia-Belarus Union Play on Nostalgia
By Francesca Mereu
Staff Writer

After several years of gathering dust, the longstanding proposal to unite Russia and Belarus into a common state is being revisited, with plans afoot to draw up a constitution proposal later this month. It is unclear, however, whether the move is anything more than an attempt by the Kremlin to court an electorate nostalgic for the Soviet Union.

An alternative scenario much discussed in the Russian press -- that the formation of a Russian-Belarussian union could be used as a way to keep President Vladimir Putin in power beyond 2008 -- is thought less likely, due to strong resistance from officials in both countries to the idea.

A joint commission of Russian and Belarussian officials announced last month that it would draw up a constitution proposal by mid-November, a document that would pave the way for creating the union's executive and legislative bodies. The commission will submit the draft to an intergovernmental group, the Supreme Council of the Union State, by Nov. 15, which would then call for a referendum on the constitution in the two countries, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said after an Oct. 20 session of the commission.

If adopted, the constitution, which calls for establishment of a two-chamber parliament, a Cabinet and a supreme council, would enter into force 30 days after being published in Russian and Belarussian newspapers, Gryzlov said.

The announcement prompted speculation in the Russian press that integration was being accelerated so that Putin could move on to run the common state after his second term expired in 2008.

"The only meaning this move has is to please those who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union in both countries," said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

The Supreme Council would be the union's supreme executive body and would be co-chaired by the presidents of Russia and Belarus, according to the current constitution proposal.

But Pavel Borodin, secretary of the Russian-Belarussian Union, is lobbying for the draft constitution to be changed so that a president and deputy president run the union. "A unified state cannot develop without independent and effective power exercised by a president," Borodin said, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported. Borodin said the union's president and deputy president should serve seven-year terms. Borodin has called for Putin to become president of the union after his second term ends in 2008.

Stanovaya and Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank, said they thought the project had been resuscitated to please voters ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

"People like to hear populist statements that two Slavic countries ... are working to unite," Korgunyuk said.

A union would not help the Kremlin to find a solution to "the 2008 problem," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. Speculation has been swirling for months about what will happen after Putin's current second and constitutionally final term ends, and Kremlin critics have expressed doubt that Putin will leave office.

Pribylovsky said that even if the constitution were amended as Borodin suggested, the president of a future Russian-Belarussian union would not have the power to rule in Russia. "Putin would just get a symbolic job, since he would be a president of a union that doesn't mean anything," Pribylovsky said.

The idea of creating a new state for a Russian leader to rule was first raised in the mid-1990s, when it was widely seen as a backup option to keep then-President Boris Yeltsin in power beyond 2000. Plans for a union were put on hold after Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor.

Moves toward a union subsequently lost momentum, and the project has remained mainly ceremonial as Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has been reluctant to concede any of his powers to Russia.

"For Russia, Belarus can only be one of its regions and nothing more than that, but Lukashenko would never agree to such a condition," said Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications.