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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Takes Helm of New Union

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday became the head of the Russia-Belarus union - and the head of the new bureaucracy to be created around it.

The treaty on the union, signed Dec. 8 and ratified by the countries' parliaments later that month, went into effect Wednesday when Lukashenko and acting President Vladimir Putin exchanged documents in a Kremlin ceremony.

"We made a decision today that the government of the union, the Higher State Council, should have a very impressive office," Lukashenko said at a news conference after the ceremony.

But he added that the union would have "less than 100 bureaucrats."

In fact, the treaty calls for the creation of at least 124 new positions: 103 parliamentary representatives, one state secretary, nine judges and 11 members of the audit chamber. That, of course, does not include the hordes of secretaries, spokespeople and others who will work under the top officials.

Lukashenko, who is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union and has been impatient at the pace at which the union is being created, took a bow as he took his place at the news conference.

"Our union marks a strengthening, a competitor of the West becomes stronger, and they don't want this," he said of Western skepticism of the treaty.

While it was Yeltsin who signed the treaty with Lukashenko, Putin waxed sentimental about its significance.

"The treaty not only corresponds to the national interests of two countries, two great powers, but embodies the longing of both Russians and Belarussians to live and work together for the common good," Putin said.

Most observers say the union is little more than a bit of populism, but the treaty could have serious implication.

The new state will be governed by the Higher State Council, made up of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of parliament of each country. Only the presidents, however, have a vote. Lukashenko was named chairman of the council Wednesday in place of former President Boris Yeltsin, who was originally supposed to get the position.

While each state technically keeps its sovereignty, national legislation, tax codes, banking policies and defense policies are to be harmonized, and a single currency is to be established by 2005. Laws and decrees of the union state have greater force than national laws, though not more than the constitutions of the member states.

The union is to have a bicameral parliament. The House of the Union will be made up of an equal number of representatives from the Belarus and Russian parliaments. The 75 Russian and 28 Belarussian members of the House of Representatives will be elected separately.

News agencies quoted Putin as saying parliamentary elections may be held this year, but Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said previously they could not be held until next year.

The treaty gives parliamentary deputies immunity from prosecution - a privilege Russian legislators have vowed to tear down in their own country.

But the structure of the union state favors the executive branch.

Administrative responsibilities are given to the Council of Ministers, made up of top Cabinet officials from each country. The Higher State Council named Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov chairman of the Council of Ministers and former Kremlin properties manager Pavel Borodin to the post of State Secretary.

Later in the day, Lukashenko presented an award, the Order of Frantsisco Skorina, to Yeltsin at the Belarussian Embassy for his contribution to the integration of the two countries.

Yeltsin accepted the award graciously. "The task of unification of the peoples of two countries has been handed over to reliable hands," he said.

As they stood drinking champagne, Lukashenko said that Yeltsin "had gotten younger" since he last saw him.

At the news conference, Lukashenko took a familiar tone with journalists, many of whom seemed to admire him and prefaced their questions with flattering comments. To Yevgeny Revenko, a correspondent from NTV, which has been critical in its coverage of Belarus, Lukashenko joked: "Zhenya, just don't provoke me."