Belarussian Connection

The recent meetings between President Boris Yeltsin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko could have serious consequences not only for the politics of the two countries but for international relations in Europe in general. The difficult negotiations between the two countries, which have been opposed by Russian liberal democrats on the one hand and Belarussian nationalists on the other, were settled by the stroke of a pen. The two leaders resolved what financial experts have long considered to be an extremely complex economic problem: Russia and Belarus forgave each other their debts. The two presidents broadly outlined their plans for future integration and will determine the scale the union between the countries will take at the end of March.

The simplicity with which their financial and economic obstacles were overcome is cause for both admiration and fear. It seems that nothing is impossible when there is good political will. The leaders simply put aside the many problems that, for years, officials and experts could not solve.

The speed of the agreements can be explained, in part, by the current presidential campaign in Russia. The coming elections have created extraordinary political conditions that have pushed the government into making hasty decisions, including ones that could lead to its downfall. Many political analysts see the union with Belarus as a constitutional way of overturning the results of December's parliamentary elections. It is clear that Yeltsin will be playing the Belarussian card and forestalling the communists by appealing to a certain part of Russian society's nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

Integration with Belarus, if both presidents decide to carry it out to the fullest, with the possibility of a union of governments, is fraught with the danger of a return to communist and Soviet conditions, especially if Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov wins the presidential elections in June and is dominated by the party's radical wing. A break with the economic and democratic reforms could turn out to be the least evil. What would be worse is if the new "gathering of Soviet lands" were not limited to Belarus. This would provoke protests -- and not necessarily peaceful ones -- by the populations of these governments as well as Russians.

Although the Communists received 22 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, this is still not a majority. And although the initiative for integration comes above all from the Belarussian side, Lukashenko is not all of Belarus, where there is a parliament and various political parties. If the Belarussian Communist Party publicly supports the creation of a confederation, from the perspective of reconstructing the Soviet Union, then the Agrarians, not to mention the right wing, are still fighting to keep their sovereignty.

On the whole, about 80 percent of the Belarussian population is in favor of preserving sovereignty. Many political analysts have until now been astounded that the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred without bloodshed. It is unlikely that this miracle would repeat itself in case of its restoration.

If carried out inconclusively, integration could also reflect negatively on the relations of Belarus and Russia with third countries. The little that was said about creating a corridor between the cities of Grodno, Suvalki and Gusev, uniting Belarus with the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad through Polish territory, by "reaching an agreement with Poland to use a part of its territory," has already provoked a sharp response from Warsaw.

Such a reaction to the projected plans, which have been discussed for over a year, should in no way come as a surprise. The project, which could speed up the decision taken in January to determine the economic status of Kaliningrad, includes building a highway, granting tariff privileges on Belarussian imports and exports to Kaliningrad ports, and establishing courts to regulate trade. Understandably, Poland is raising objections to the unwanted competition this would cause in the Baltic ports. No less important, many Polish analysts consider that such a corridor could prevent Poland from entering NATO.

The goal behind creating such a transportation infrastructure is also to lessen Belarus' and Russia's dependence on Lithuania. But several Belarussian politicians doubt that the potential economic gains could be able to compensate for the worsening of relations with the country that would ensue.

The construction of a gas pipeline through Belarus and Poland, which would be an alternative to the Ukrainian pipeline, is provoking heated discussion in Poland. Many Polish experts and politicians believe that such a pipeline, carrying Russian gas, would undermine Poland's independence and give Russia the opportunity to manipulate prices and set political conditions.

Russian-Belarussian integration will have consequences for economic, political and military developments in Europe. Therefore, it is important that both countries avoid falling into the trap of using it as an instrument of anti-Western policies. Partnership between them should not used as an arm against certain tendencies, but as a way of strengthening the national interests of the two countries, which coincide considerably.

The interests of Russia and Belarus also correspond to improving relations with Western Europe and the United States. Belarus could help further Russian-German relations and normalize those with the former Warsaw Pact countries, above all Poland, Lithuania and the other Baltic countries.

It seems that the course of events is leading toward economic integration between the two governments of the former union. It would be good if such a course does not sweep away the little that has been accomplished during the past few years and the speed with which it proceeds stays in line with the rules of European security.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate of the Moscow Carnegie Center and the USA/Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.