Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Let's Hope There's No 'U' to Come

President Boris Yeltsin has declared April 2 a national holiday to celebrate the new union formed by Russia and Belarus on Tuesday. But will this date be remembered with relief or regret as the years go by? Are we truly headed back to the U.S.S.R.?


A week or so ago, when the treaty was first initialed, Yeltsin assured us "no." Shortly after the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, had said the treaty was the first step in joining the two countries in a single state, Yeltsin said that "someone mixed something up there."


Now, it seems, Yeltsin has also become mixed up. He too is now talking openly about a new single state, a fact that has prompted the usually integrationist President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to distance himself from the whole affair.


Any doubts about the aims of the new treaty were surely dispelled by the choice of title for the fledgling union. The acronym for the Community of Sovereign Republics -- SSR, in Russian -- is just one letter off the old S.S.S.R. -- known in English as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


And the "SSR" shares more than initials with the old Soviet Union. The members of the new community will share supranational bodies and develop a common legislative base, economic structures and foreign policy.


The union is likely to generate some smug satisfaction among Russia's communists and some heartburn among the former constituent republics, almost all of which expressed alarm at the State Duma's Communist Party-backed attempt to declare the U.S.S.R. alive just over two weeks ago.


Clearly, Yeltsin is hoping to steal some of the Communist thunder on the issue of reintegration. And given the enormous difficulties Russia will face in digesting Belarus, Eastern Europe's last true economic basket case, there is some reason to believe Yeltsin's appetite for the plan might cool after June's elections -- if he is still in the Kremlin then.


But the union offers Russia some peril. A single currency, as advocated -- but not mandated -- in the treaty, would risk returning to the days of 1992 and 1993, when Moscow's support for the ruble zone essentially granted former Soviet republics a license to print money and drive up inflation in Russia.


If there is no joint Central Bank, then Moscow would again lose control over its currency. But even with such control, the closer the economic union, the higher the short-term cost will be to Russia, because the economy of Belarus has so far to go.


The International Monetary Fund, for example, has pulled the plug on financial support for Belarus, a month after Lukashenko called IMF recommendations "correct, but only in a market economy, not ours."