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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, Belarus Sign Sweeping Union Pact

Russia and Belarus took a giant step toward reunification Tuesday with the signature of a sweeping treaty creating the Community of Sovereign Republics -- or, according to its Russian acronym, the SSR, just one letter off the acronym of the former Soviet Union.

At a lavish Kremlin ceremony, President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko declared April 2 a new national holiday for both countries -- "Unification of the Peoples Day" -- in honor of the treaty.

"Today is a truly unforgettable day. The event in which we are participating will undoubtedly go down in the history of Russian-Belarussian relations," Yeltsin told the gathering, which was attended by some 300 officials from Belarus who had arrived Tuesday morning on a special train.

The new union went further toward re-integration than any previous agreement between the former Union republics, most of which are protective of their sovereignty. And while Kremlin officials said the creation of a new single state was still far off, the symbolism of the new organization's name was clear.

The signing of the treaty may also help Yeltsin to steal ground from his Communist Party rival in June's presidential election. The Communists made it clear with a State Duma resolution two weeks ago that they plan to campaign on nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which Yeltsin effectively dismantled in December 1991.

While based on "the principles or sovereignty and equality of the sides," the SSR treaty calls for a unified economic zone, the synchronizing of economic reforms, and creation of the conditions for the introduction of a single cur level of integration achieved by our peoples within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States."

Tuesday's signing came less than a week after Yeltsin and Lukashenko, along with the leaders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, signed a treaty on economic and cultural integration based on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's plan for a Eurasian Union, similar in design to the European Union.

In Russia the treaty was roundly welcomed by politicians from across the spectrum. State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, a Communist, told Interfax that the treaty "would get a green light" when it was submitted to the lower house for ratification.

Yabloko deputy Yelena Mizulina said she supported efforts at greater integration of the former Soviet republics, but not in the manner pursued by the Communists last month when they rammed a resolution through the lower house denouncing the 1991 agreement disbanding the Soviet Union.

"By its vote on March 15 the Duma put itself in a hopeless situation. If it does not ratify the treaty, then the resolution passed last month was a complete profanation. In that case the Communists would discredit themselves once and for all," Mizulina said.

In Minsk, however, some 10,000 opponents of the new commonwealth marched through the city center in protest. Twenty-four leaders of the nationalist opposition sent an open letter to Yeltsin last week in which they denounced the treaty as "a direct betrayal of the interests of the Belarussian people."

Some members of the CIS, including Tajikistan, welcomed the closer union of Russia and Belarus. Nazarbayev, however, said there was no question of Kazakhstan joining the SSR, which is open to all comers. Alexander Kimasov, a Nazarbayev spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Almaty on Tuesday that the president objected to the level of integration in the SSR.

"The problem is not that this level is too high. If it were high, one might grow up to reach it. It is too open an attempt, or a step, toward restoring the relations that existed in the former union," Kimasov said.

Lukashenko has gone furthest in suggesting that the SSR could lead to the creation of a single state. In an interview published Tuesday in Rossiiskie Vesti, the Belarussian leader said it was still early to speak of the perspectives for a single state, but that the SSR treaty foresees 1996 and 1997 as a "transitional period" during which many common problems will be resolved.

"This period will show us if we will reach a common constitution of a single state, or if we will remain at the level of the European Union, or if we will be a confederation," Lukashenko said.

But a top Yeltsin adviser, Viktor Borisyuk of the president's analytical center, said Tuesday that before the two states could enter a closer political union, "real integration" would have to occur, and a popular groundswell in support of a single state would have to occur in both countries.

"President Lukashenko's statements on the possibility of a single state should be regarded as an intention, a desire, but not as a practical task of the present day. Neither country is currently prepared for such a union," said Borisyuk.

The SSR will be administered by three new supranational bodies: a Supreme Council, grouping the presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary leaders of the two countries; a parliamentary assembly, formed of equal numbers of deputies from each side; and an Executive Council, charged with handling the day-to-day work of the organization.

Lukashenko was named chairman of the Supreme Council on Tuesday, while Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin became head of the Executive Council.