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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Union? Not if, When

Last Friday, the Russian State Duma passed a resolution denouncing the Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreement. On Dec. 8, 1991, the leaders of the three Slav republics -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus Speaker Stanislav Shushkevich -- escaped to a small residence in the Belovezh forest reserve in Belarus to sign a treaty which accomplished, de jure, the break-up of the Soviet Union. Given the coming presidential elections in June, the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and restoration of a new union of post-Soviet republics has become an important political issue. The resolution, which was pushed through by the Communist Party majority in parliament, was made, above all, in reaction to Yeltsin's initiative toward integration of Russia and Belarus.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's official visit to Moscow in February might have seemed like dozens of similar trips by heads of the Newly Independent States, except for one important circumstance: For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, practical steps were being taken toward restoring a unified Soviet state.

Although Yeltsin has decisively dissociated himself from plans of Russian communists to restore the Soviet Union, and has said that integration with Belarus does not mean that the two countries would unite, the possibility of some return to unification of a good part of post-Soviet territory is becoming more real. The process of integration is moving ahead impetuously, despite all efforts taken by the West to avoid such a scenario.

The presidential campaign in Russia has become one of the most powerful catalysts of the integration process. Public opinion, not only in Russia and Belarus but also Ukraine, Kazakhstan and some other former Soviet republics, has swelled in favor of reintegration. Only the Baltic countries remain unchanged in their strong desire for national sovereignty and independence from Moscow.

Bilateral relations between Moscow and Minsk provide the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States with a real alternative to the ineffective bodies of the CIS. Although it is not yet clear what form the integration of the Belarus and Russian states will take -- whether it will be a confederation or even a federation -- they have declared their intention to create a common supranational body. The rapid integration of the two countries was worked out by both Yeltsin and Lukashenko, yet each for different reasons.

For Yeltsin, this initiative is a means to further his presidential campaign. Yeltsin is well aware of the attitudes on the part of many Russian voters toward creating a unified state with Belarus and Ukraine. Second, his team will also attempt to turn attention of Russian citizens away from the disaster of civil war in Chechnya. Third, it is extremely important for Yeltsin to dispel communist accusations of high treason for the breakup of the Soviet Union. Fourth, unification with Belarus allows Russia to show its decisiveness and political will to the West as it faces NATO expansion eastward. Given Belarus' geopolitical position as the western outpost of the former Soviet Union's defense, as well as the xenophobia and anti-Western attitudes of Lukashenko, Moscow can now suggest that it will greatly reinforce its military potential along its western borders as a counterbalance to expansion.

And, finally, having approached a phase of macroeconomic stabilization, Russia is interested in subordinating the economic potential of Belarus to its own national interests. With that end in view, powerful financial groups are forming joint oil-processing petrochemical and pipeline construction industries in Belarus, which are actually becoming part of the Russian oil and gas industrial complex.

The long-term economic and political interests of Russian expansion into Belarus explain why Moscow signed what, at first sight, seems a disadvantageous agreement, by which Russia forgave Belarus' $1.3 billion debt.

For Lukashenko, the unification of Belarus with Russia is a part of the political program that won him the elections in July 1994. But that is not the main reason that Lukashenko is pushing for integration with Russia. He hopes unification with Russia can rescue the country from its economic crisis. Minsk's failure to carry out economic reform, together with Lukashenko's adherence to old-style administrative ways of governing, has led the country to become, in the words of experts from the Central European Economic Review, "the only basket case left in Central and Eastern Europe, war-torn Bosnia excepted."

Catastrophic economic conditions have forced Lukashenko to surrender part of Belarus' economic sovereignty to Moscow in exchange for political gains. It can be assumed that he intends to make use of the integration campaign with Russia to strengthen his semi-authoritarian rule and suppress political opposition.

The Kremlin is prepared to close its eyes to Belarus' widespread infringements of democracy and freedom of speech and the press. Unlike Zyuganov, who would like to see the Soviet Union restored, Yeltsin is striving to create a unified state in which Russia would be the undisputed leader and other states will be strictly subordinate to Russian national interests.

When Russia and Belarus made public their plans for integration, Kazakhstan, with a Russian population of some 50 percent, declared it would soon join the process. No doubt, the integration process which started in Belarus is influencing other former Soviet states such as Ukraine. If Zyuganov wins the presidential election, Ukraine, which is also experiencing a considerable rise in communist influence, will somehow join the process. Then, the creation of a renewed union will become only a matter of time.

Anatol Maissenia is president of the East-West National Center for Strategic Initiatives in Minsk. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.