Yeltsin harks back to the USSR

Plans to reunite Belarus and Russia face a number of hurdles, writes Phil Reeves

Moscow - Just over five years after he signed the Belovezhsky documents, which broke up the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin is hoping to put pen to paper again today, this time in an effort to put parts of the former empire - Russia and Belarus - back together again.

He is expected to meet his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, to sign an accord over the creation of a union between the Slavic neighbours which, while falling short of fusing them into a single state, appears to be a big step towards reintegration.

If it goes ahead, the signing will come after several days of debate in Moscow's political circles about the wisdom of pressing on with reunification with an unreformed and repressive Soviet-style nation whose economic woes could easily turn out to be an extra burden on Russia's crippled exchequer.

After negotiations which saw the head of Russia's Security Council, Ivan Rybkin, fly to Minsk for last-minute talks, Mr Yeltsin's spokesman yesterday announced that the President wanted to proceed. The Union Treaty was a "geopolitical necessity and an economic reality", he said.

But it was unclear how weighty a document the two presidents will sign. The Kremlin said Mr Yeltsin was proposing a shorter one than planned, which would state "in black and white that the parties will transform the Community of Russia and Belarus into a union and transfer some of their powers to the union." But it also said Mr Yeltsin wanted a further month of discussion about a charter outlining the accord.

In doing so, he appears to have bowed to pressure from his own administration, which was deeply split over the issue. The union envisages co-ordinated economic, foreign and defence policies, without giving up national sovereignty. While generally favouring closer ties with Minsk, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais - the youthful free-marketeers now calling the shots in the Russian government - reportedly feared it was being rushed through.

Their reservations are shared fivefold by Russian liberals who balk at the idea of closer ties with Mr Lukashenko, whose human-rights record is even worse than Mr Yeltsin's.

Belarussian opposition leaders have been beaten and jailed, demonstrations have been broken up by police using batons and tear gas, and the media have been censored.

Although a closer union of Russia and Belarus may cause frowns in the West - particularly among Russia's big lenders, such as the IMF - it offers domestic advantages to both leaders. Mr Lukashenko, 42, a former Soviet farm director, stands to increase his popularity in his 10 million- strong nation, where he has cultivated a mood of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Belarussian nationalists fiercely oppose it, but they are a minority.

He may also be covertly eyeing the Russian presidency, although that would require the two countries fully to reunite, a process that will take some years. Such a move would meet with cries of alarm in the West, and particularly in the US, which has been embroiled in a war of words with Mr Lukashenko, culminating in the recent expulsion from Minsk of two US diplomats.

For Mr Yeltsin, there are gains - but also possible losses. It will deepen rifts with ex-Soviet members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which do not welcome the idea of a Russian super-state. The President of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, has said that different levels of unification in the CIS was an "absolute nonsense" and would pave the way to its destruction.

But a Russia-Belarus union would win Mr Yeltsin much-needed applause at home, especially among conservatives and Communists. Many Russians are unconcerned by Mr Lukashenko's murky rights record, and would welcome a move to rebuild part of the Soviet Union and increase Russia's standing on the world stage - especially given Nato's eastward expansion. Moscow would benefit from securing a firmer grasp on a corridor to the West for its oil and gas exports, and by reconnecting businesses that split up when the USSR folded. The treaty is thought to make commerce easier by protecting property rights and - in admittedly loose language - "creating the conditions" for a single currency.

But many warn that Russia's largely privatised economy is currently incompatible with Belarus's centrally planned and mostly state-owned one.

Although Minsk has been claiming growth in output, these figures are thought to be based on stockpiles of unwanted goods. It is, most analysts agree, even worse off than Russia.

Ultimately, the success or failure of today's events depends on whether the union finally comes to fruition. It is worth remembering that a batch of economic agreements signed a year ago by these two men are still widely ignored.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable