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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocky Road to Union With Belarus




Former fellow Soviet republics Russia and Belarus are once again trumpeting a new era in their proposed union, complete with a single currency and a single budget, but the path from paper to reality is looking long and fraught with pitfalls.


Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who was in Moscow for the second time this month, on Friday signed two agreements and a protocol on economic and political unification.


The two leaders signed a controversial "charter" in May 1997 that prescribed a closer union between the two countries.


But there has been little progress since and Friday's agreements added few details. They oblige neither side to much except a fresh flurry of bilateral negotiations between the two "Slavic brother nations."


"God or the devil is in the details," said Pavel Kandel of the Institute of Europe. "But right now the details are hidden in the gloom."


A Kremlin official overseeing the union said "technical details" were still in the works and effects of the treaty wouldn't be seen on the ground for some time, Reuters reported.


The merger is popular in both countries. Only a small faction of nationalists in Belarus oppose closer ties. They met the signing with protests Friday, and Monday prominent opposition members decried the agreements as unconstitutional, The Associated Press reported.


The agreement purports to lay the groundwork for the merger of the two countries, with identical tax codes, a single budget, a single currency and "unified governmental structures." But the texts of the agreements are more like a "declaration of intent," analysts said Monday.


One of the documents, equal rights for economic entities, comes with a protocol that sets out responsibilities and deadlines for creating a single currency and unifying fiscal policy.


But the agreement itself has a built-in escape clause: If one side decides to bow out, it gives the other side six months' notice and the agreement is null andvoid.


Another agreement offers citizens equal rights to public education and health care, which are nominally free in both countries. But it says nothing about where the money will come from, except to say that neither side must reimburse the other for ambulance services provided to foreign citizens.


Analysts say it is fairly obvious where the money would come from if merger takes place: the Russian budget. The Belarussian economy is in even more desperate straits than Russia's, and as a pariah who has been accused of jailing his detractors and who Friday openly bemoaned the removal of nuclear weapons from his territory, Lukashenko has nowhere to turn for cash except to cash-strapped Moscow.


The union had remained on ice for almost a year and a half precisely because of doubts in Moscow about hitching Russia to Belarus's faltering economy.


But in the wake of Russia's financial crisis, the distance between the two economies may have narrowed. Some analysts said that the two countries were now running on a parallel course.


"It won't get any worse," said Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of Fond Politika think tank.


The merger declaration drew applause from nationalist quarters in Russia where Yeltsin generally meets opposition, such as the State Duma. The Communist-dominated lower house of parliament favors a union because it hopes it might restore Moscow's imperial status.


Russia's often-rebellious regional leaders, whom Lukashenko has courted, also voiced their approval.


Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev, for one, said the agreement opened up a new market for his suffering coal-mining region of Kemerovo, which Lukashenko visited last fall when he signed an order for 1 million tons of Kemerovo coal.