Secret Union Could Cost Russia Dearly

Two events were at the center of everyone's attention last week: the final forming of the government and the agreement between Russia and Belarus. But the question of a union with Belarus could turn out to have far more serious consequences than any appointment or dismissal of high-level officials. I may very well be writing my next column for The Moscow Times from a different country -- a Russian-Belarussian confederation with an as yet unknown name.


Something mystical for Russia most likely lurks in Belarus. At the end of 1991, the Belavezhskaya Pushcha Accord was signed in Belarus, putting an end to the U.S.S.R. as a state. Today, it is Belarus that is urgently seeking to reverse this historical process and unite the two governments.


Perhaps the result will not be the elimination of Russia as an independent government. But who knows how events will develop if the proposed draft agreement is put into effect?


Probably not since the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has an international agreement that directly concerns the interests of every citizen been worked out so secretly. The proposed agreement to unite the two countries was formally prepared by a narrow group of experts headed by Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, who oversees affairs for the Commonwealth of Independent States. At the same time, it is said the true leader and inspiration for this project is Sergei Shakhrai. The moderately left-leaning Oleg Rumyantsev also participated.


It should be recalled that Shakhrai was one of President Boris Yeltsin's closest advisers in 1991 and 1992. A former deputy prime minister and State Duma deputy, he has several times distanced himself and drawn closer to the president. But even though Shakhrai has once again gained certain access to Yeltsin, he has not been given any position in the new government or presidential administration.


As an experienced politician, Shakhrai understands that he can be close to the president without holding high office and that it is best to enter the close circle of advisers around the president with grandiose projects. Shakhrai undoubtedly thinks that the integration initiative is such a project, one that Yeltsin has recently been trying to seize from the Belarussian president.


Shakhrai, who is competing with First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais for influence over the president, found an ally in Serov and carried out negotiations on integration.


Unifying Russia with relatively backward Belarus, however, will hardly mean market reform or democratic transformation in this small brotherly republic. It may not be Russia that spreads its influence to Brest, but, rather, Belarus that expands its rules of the game to Vladivostok. At least the Russian communists and a number of national-patriots would not object to Lukashenko becoming head of a united government, since he openly shows his communist and anti-Western sympathies.


Some kind of gradual integration of the two countries would undoubtedly be useful -- but only if unification can be carried out without haste and without Lukashenko.


It can only be hoped that Yeltsin won't get carried away and that he will find a way to stop this frighteningly quick unification process, which could cost both countries and Yeltsin himself dearly.





Mikhail Berger is economics editor for Izvestia.