Russia cements links with stricken Belarus

Back in the USSR: Deal falls short of re-creating Soviet Union but provokes anger on streets of Minsk and concern in West

Thousands of Belarussians cast off their national stereotype as passive people and took to the streets of Minsk last night in defiance of their conservative leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, who had earlier signed a treaty with President Boris Yeltsin on integration with Russia. The agreement stopped short, however, of creating a single state.

Yesterday's peaceful rally was smaller than one last month, when Belarussians thought the President was about to surrender their national sovereignty. But it was enough to sour the atmosphere on the day that Mr Yeltsin and Mr Lukashenko launched their Community of Sovereign Republics, which creates the closest economic and political partnership of any ex-Soviet republics.

Because Belarus is in deeper economic trouble than Russia, Mr Lukashenko has been pressing for the closest possible relationship. But Mr Yeltsin has been more cautious, lest Belarus becomes a burden.

Under the deal, each side will preserve its independence, territorial integrity, flag and national anthem. The republics will co-ordinate foreign policy and work out common defence principles. By the end of next year they aim to have their economic reforms synchronised, so that a common market becomes possible. "This document opens a qualitatively new stage in the history of our two brotherly peoples," Mr Yelstin said at the ceremony in the Kremlin's St George's Hall. Mr Lukashenko said Belarus and Russia were following the example of the European Union.

The new mini-community is open to other members of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States but they have preferred to keep a greater distance.

The signing is a boost for Mr Yeltsin, who is running for re-election in June. Under pressure from the Communists, calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union, he will be able to tell voters that his alternative policy of seeking voluntary integration among ex-Soviet republics is bearing fruit.

But he cannot yet say the same about his plan to end the Chechnya war, seen as crucial to his chances of winning a second term. Yesterday the Chechen separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, wielded his power to influence the election and kept his enemy in the Kremlin waiting for a response to his peace initiative.

Fighting continued in Chechnya despite Mr Yeltsin's announcement of an end to military operations and a partial troop pull-out. On Sunday he said a campaign last month had left federal forces controlling two-thirds of Chechen territory, enabling a withdrawal of units not needed for the fight against "terrorists". He called for parliamentary elections and, surprisingly, offered talks through mediators with General Dudayev, whom Moscow has up to now called a criminal.

But 48 hours after Mr Yeltsin's speech there was a resounding silence from the mountains of southern Chechnya, where General Dudayev has hidden since being forced out of his capital, Grozny, last year. In a telephone call to Russian television, one of his fighters said the Muslim Chechens would not respond officially until their top leadership had met. But General Dudayev's spokesman, Movladi Udugov, gave a fair indication of the likely reaction when he told Ekho Moskvy radio: "All the political steps taken by the Russian side can be no more than pre-election action with the aim of raising Yeltsin's authority and making him Russian president for a second term."

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