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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Meeting of 4 Dulls Hopes For Union




While the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan tried to put a brave face on progress toward a customs union, the real story was happening elsewhere.


A Belarussian court is about to decide the fate of Pavel Sheremet, the ORT television journalist arrested while filming a report on Belarus' breaches of the terms of the union.


Sheremet was trying to expose the contraband trade conducted by Belarussian intermediaries with the tacit consent of Minsk, which allows hundreds of millions of dollars of goods to be smuggled into Russia.


Sheremet's imprisonment and subsequent trial has outraged liberals in Russia who resent both the attempt to muzzle free speech and Belarus' abuse of the customs union.


President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, appear to have reached a deal on this highly publicized case. A Belarussian prosecutor this week asked the court to give Sheremet a suspended sentence. Yeltsin on Thursday pronounced himself satisfied.


But even if Sheremet avoids a prison term, as now appears likely, Belarus' abuse of the customs union will continue.


Sheremet's case is a reminder that not even Belarus and Russia, the two most enthusiastic proponents of a union to replace the Soviet Union, can agree on basic policies.


Political pronouncements on the customs union and the even more moribund Commonwealth of Independent States -- a loose organization of 12 former Soviet republics -- are driven not by real consideration of national interests, but rather by the nostalgia that many still feel for the Soviet Union.


While Russian, Belarussian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders may feel compelled to persist with some process of reintegration, it is increasingly apparent that they do not share enough common interests.


Thursday's summit on the customs union was an attempt to wipe away the embarrassment caused by last October's CIS summit, in which leaders of the former Soviet republics roundly told Yeltsin they did not want any part of a Russian-dominated diplomatic club.


While Thursday's more intimate summit did not repeat that public relations debacle, its meager results confirm it is unlikely to satisfy anyone nostalgic for the Russian empire.


Trading patterns have shifted, and Moscow is no longer the center. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev may have talked about economic reintegration with Moscow, but his strongest words were reserved for a dispute over ownership of Caspian Sea oil. Russia and Belarus remain at loggerheads on border controls.


Invoking the ghost of the Soviet Union is quickly fading as a rallying cry. Even the last loyal foursome must soon accept that.