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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting a Political Dance to Music

MINSK, Belarus -- How exactly do you put into words -- no, into song -- the great union of Belarus and Russia, especially when their two leaders cannot agree on what exactly the union is or should be?

"What we need is to find a really good piece of music," explained Igor Luchenok, a composer in Minsk. "It could be a waltz. It could be a tango. I don't know.

"We're not in a hurry," he added.

Seven years after Belarus and Russia signed the first of four agreements pledging to merge the two countries into a single, greater whole, the political waltz -- or, better, tango -- between President Alexander Lukashenko and now President Vladimir Putin has produced little except disagreement over everything from a common currency to, most recently, a unified military.

Now a committee of composers, lyricists and officials from both countries has a started a competition of sorts to create a national anthem for the Russia-Belarus Union -- even if such a nation does not yet exist and may never.

"It should reflect the desire of the nation and its desire for unity, having one economy and one army," said Oleg Zhukov, a poet and one of 10 members of the committee that will judge potential new anthems. "Our historical memory is in our unity and our brotherhood."

By the time the committee's members met for the first time over three days in April in the Belarussian Embassy in Moscow, they had received 434 submissions: ballads, hymns, marches, waltzes and even pop songs.

A pattern emerged.

Zhukov and Luchenok, also a judge, agreed that many sounded conspicuously like the anthem of the Soviet Union, to which both countries once belonged and for which the new union's most ardent supporters seem to long.

The committee's first meeting, like so much involving the union, ended inconclusively, though its members plan to meet again soon to whittle down the proposed anthems and consider new submissions. By this fall, they hope to select 20 or so finalists and hold a concert in Moscow at which the winner will be decided.

That might be the most concrete thing to come out of seven years of marriage negotiations that have at times been as acrimonious as a divorce.

When Lukashenko signed the first agreement in 1996 with President Boris Yeltsin, the union was envisioned as a confederation of two countries with close ethnic, cultural and religious ties.

Lukashenko, increasingly autocratic and repressive, lobbied energetically for a closer union, in large part because he hoped to lead it.

But Putin has responded coolly since taking office more than three years ago, distancing himself from Lukashenko, whose policies have left Belarus increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe.

Last year, in what was seen as an effort to outflank Lukashenko and those in Russia eager to revive the stature of the Soviet state, he proposed that if Belarus truly wanted a merger, then its seven regions should simply be absorbed into Russia. Lukashenko angrily dismissed the idea as an insult to the Belarussian people.

The obstacles to a true union remain substantial.

Russia has 145 million people and an economy that has undergone a radical, if at times erratic, transition to capitalism. Belarus, by contrast, has 10 million people, with an ailing economy strangled by corruption and state controls imposed by Lukashenko.

Putin has instead focused on smaller steps toward closer cooperation on immigration, law enforcement and economics. In January, for example, he called for speeding up the adoption of a single currency -- the Russian ruble -- by next year. In May, he proposed creating a common market that would link not only Russia and Belarus, but also Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

An anthem faces obstacles of its own. Luchenok, the composer, said there were no criteria per se for an anthem -- except one.

"What we were told is that we should avoid politics,'' he said.

In his Minsk apartment, Luchenok bounded hyperkinetically from room to room, from a chair to a black upright piano made by a company called Belarus. His is an unusual position as both a judge and a contestant. He said he simply left the room when his song was played before the committee.

He played his own submission on a CD player.

"Glory to our sacred union," one refrain went. "Belarus and Russia -- we are joined in one fate."

He was pleased with the music well enough, but the lyrics, he said, needed work.