July 22, 2005

Belarus and Russia ponder a Soviet reunion

MOSCOW: President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has arrived in Russia to promote a reunification plan for the two countries to offset growing Western influence in the former Soviet Union.

Some analysts say the new union would allow Vladimir Putin to stay on as Russian President after 2008, when, having served two terms, he is obliged to step down under the constitution.

The two countries formed a loose union in 1996, but it has been hampered by economic disputes and personal animosity between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin.

Both leaders, however, appear to have put aside their differences after revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and now seem to be forging ahead with plans to form a union.

Russian officials said they were drawing up a draft constitution to be presented to the two leaders later this year, and that they were discussing plans for the Russian rouble to be introduced in Belarus next year.

'It is much more of a reality than people think," said Ivan Makoshok, a spokesman for the embryonic Russia-Belarus Union, estimating that full reunification could take as little as two years.

Mr Lukashenko has ruled his country of 10 million people for more than a decade by reviving Soviet-style economic controls, silencing opponents and holding a series of flawed elections and referendums.

But analysts said he now feared that he could become the latest in a sequence of autocrats across the former Soviet Union to be toppled in a Western-backed revolution.

The US has called Mr Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator" and last year passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which authorises assistance for a regime change in what the White House calls an "outpost of tyranny".

Mr Putin, meanwhile, is anxious to prevent another former Soviet state turning its back on Moscow and pursuing integration with the West.

The idea of reunification has been championed by secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, Pavel Borodin, who hired Mr Putin as his deputy while serving as head of the Kremlin's property department in 1996.

The only question is who would head the new union. Talks on reunification came to a halt in 2002 after Mr Lukashenko baulked at the idea of Mr Putin taking the top post and demanded equal status.

Mr Lukashenko still harbours aspirations to share power with Mr Putin and some analysts say that he is simply trying to extract economic concessions from Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said: "It would not be an exaggeration to say that bilateral relations have been ascending, resting on the centuries-long brotherhood of the Russian and Belarussian people."

The Times