Belarus, Russia take step to unify Pact stops short of joining governments

March 24, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - The leaders of Russia and Belarus agreed yesterday to form a "union state" that, while it would not quite merge the governments of the two nations, would tie them to each other economically and politically.

Such a plan has long been discussed, particularly in Belarus, where it has been sought eagerly. But the timing of the decision was clearly influenced by election-year politics in Russia, where the Communist-dominated lower house of Parliament voted March 15 to denounce the 1991 accord that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The new union is unlikely to be large, because most of the former republics have shunned the idea whenever it is mentioned.

But depending upon its final form, it could eventually extend beyond Belarus and Russia to include Ukraine and the heavily Russian parts of Kazakstan.

"This is a path of integration that has been developing for a long time now," said Sergei Medvedev, the chief spokesman for President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia. "It is absolute stupidity to assign this action to presidential politics."

But it would be hard to draw any other conclusion. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus rushed to Moscow on Friday for seven hours of unplanned consultation with Mr. Yeltsin. He then met yesterday with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin before announcing the agreement.

"The two countries would have their own emblems and flags," Mr. Lukashenko said yesterday. "Eventually there could be a shared constitution and one currency." Nobody knows how soon that might happen, however.

Whatever else it may do, the decision to bring Russia and Belarus together provides, after years of seemingly idle talk, the first real steps toward the creation of a new confederacy that has Russia at its ethnic core.

Belarus has always been the most obvious candidate for a marriage with Moscow. Situated between Poland and Russia, it was the most reluctant to go its own way when the Soviet Union fell apart and the most eager to embrace Russia again.

The two countries have long explored a monetary union. That would cost Russia billions of dollars because Belarus, a country of 10 million people, is very poor, deeply in debt and spends much of the money it has counteracting the effects of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. While the plant was in Ukraine, most of the effects were felt in Belarus.

Outside Russia, few people believe a new Soviet Union can ever emerge.

But several of the former republics most notably Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus have large populations of ethnic Russians who have often made it clear that they would be happy to be linked with Russia again.

For that reason, the idea of drawing them back together has been deeply popular within Russia.

Mr. Chernomyrdin went out of his way yesterday to stress that any new union with Belarus would be built from two individual countries that would remain separate. He said he was not sure what the name of the new union would be. And there are many legal questions to be resolved about two countries that are governed by a ruling council and a shared parliament.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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