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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Approves Belarus Treaty

Triggering separatist rumblings from powerful Russian regional leaders, Boris Yeltsin and his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday signed a treaty ultimately aimed at creating a single Russian-Belarussian state.

But Lukashenko emphasized that Wednesday's treaty - signed on the eighth anniversary of the break-up of the Soviet Union - still fell short of the sweeping reunification he openly hankers for.

"This is not the last agreement we will sign with Boris Nikolayevich,'' he said during the Kremlin ceremony. "We shall still sign the treaty which the people of Russia and Belarus expect from us - the treaty on a unified state.''

"The treaty cannot be realized without changes in the constitutions of both states," Lukashenko added. He said that the extent of those changes would have to be worked out along the way.

The exact text of the treaty signed Wednesday remains a mystery. The Russian government published a draft in October, but since then, more than 1,500 changes have been suggested, NTV television reported.

It is not clear what, if any, changes had actually been adopted before Wednesday's signing. As published in October, the treaty called for the union to be governed by a Higher Council made up of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of parliament of each country.

A plan published with the treaty gave deadlines for various stages of unification, including adoption of a common currency by 2005. The new state is also to have its own symbols, and the melody of the Soviet anthem has been proposed for its national anthem.

The State Duma plans to hold an extraordinary session Monday to ratify the document. The Federation Council, or upper housre, will follow suit Dec. 22, NTV reported.

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev said that if the union becomes a reality, they will claim equal status to Belarus for their regions. And the Belarussian opposition has said it is ready to support such implicitly separatist sentiments to destroy the union, which it opposes. On Wednesday, Belarussian police broke up an anti-union protest in Minsk, arresting about 20 people, the Belarussian Popular Front told Reuters.

"If the treaty harms the rights of our republic within Russia, I will naturally demand rights for Ingushetia equal to those of Belarus," Ingushetia's Aushev was quoted as saying by Kommersant. "In general, this is not the time for such a pact in economic or political terms. Russia is in a fragile situation and there is no unanimity on the issue in Belarus."

Interfax quoted Tatarstan's Shaimiyev as reiterating previous declarations that his republic would also seek a new status.

Kommersant wrote Wednesday that such secessionist bluster may be playing into the hands of an anti-democratic faction in the Kremlin. If the nation were seen to be in danger of falling apart, the newspaper said, that might provide a reason to cancel elections.

The signing also elicited harsh criticism from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

"We do not play this game," Kuchma, who met with Yeltsin on Monday, told the Paris daily Le Monde. "It is the sovereign right of the Russian and Belarussian peoples to unite. But I believe Russia will suffer great losses from this union."

Yeltsin and Lukashenko struck back at Kuchma at a meeting before the signing. As Lukashenko spoke about trade volumes between Russia and Belarus, Yeltsin interrupted him. "With Ukraine we just can't achieve that kind of growth. But with Belarus we can," he said.

"Ukraine should look over this way," Lukashenko answered. "You have to look east, not only west."

The lavish display of warm relations between the Kremlin and Lukashenko's authoritarian regime took place against a backdrop of strained relations with the West over the war in Chechnya. Later Wednesday Yeltsin left for a visit to China, an event seen partially as a gesture of defiance toward the West.

Yeltsin denied there was any anti-Western motivation behind the signing.

"The unification of the Russian and Belarussian states is based on maintaining the sovereignty and independence of the participant-countries and is not aimed against anybody, not even [U.S. President Bill] Clinton," Yeltsin said, as a grin spread across Lukashenko's face.

The idea of reunification with Belarus enjoys support in Russia. But while there has been much talk about the matter, including an April 1997 treaty signing and other supplemental aggrements, little concrete has happened yet.

In Belarus, about half the population supports the idea of merging with Russia, according to independent surveys. That support has been dwindling since war in Chechnya reignited, and on Wednesday Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Belarus would in no way become involved in that war.