Imperial dreams Slavic union: Belarus edges closer to Russia but Ukraine has no desire to lose sovereignty.

April 14, 1996

BELARUS' DECISION to seek close political, economic and cultural ties with Russia does not come as a surprise. Ever since the Soviet Union fell apart four years ago, Belarus has been an orphan. It has lacked the political will and national identity to make its independence work. Its industrialized economy is a basket case. Since home-grown politicians do not want to make tough decisions, Belarus leaders now hope the Big Brother in Moscow will make them.

In its willingness to see its sovereignty eroded, Belarus is an exceptional case. Other former Soviet republics are far more jealous about guarding their newly won rights. The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, also seeking closer cooperation with Moscow, are much tougher on the terms. Kazakhstan, in particular, is conscious of its value. It is huge, rich in minerals and strategically situated along the Chinese border.

Talk about a new political union is easier said than done, however.

Belarus leaders themselves ought to know that. After all, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the integration organization that was to bind former Soviet republics after the collapse of communism, is headquartered in their capital, Minsk. Despite speeches and declarations, the organization has never amounted to much.

A truly potent Muscovite union would require the membership of Ukraine, the second largest of the Slavic republics. Ukraine, however, has shown no interest in close cooperation with Russia, even though such a political and economic alliance could have great potential benefits for both sides.

Despite Ukraine's absence, Belarus' decision to seek closer ties with Russia is a boost to President Boris N. Yeltsin, who is waging a tough fight for re-election against Gennady Zyuganov, the neo-communist leader. Mr. Yeltsin can now convincingly argue that however deep the problems of Russia's reforms, the country's progress is so coveted that other republics want to follow the Kremlin leadership.

This argument may have emotional appeal to Russian nationalists, who have tended to ally themselves with the neo-communists. Above all, those nationalists want to see Mother Russia rise again -- even if it is mostly on paper.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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