By David Marples
In the past week, 83 journalists from 73 different Russian media outlets visited Belarus. They hailed from 48 regions of Russia and were given a tour of enterprises and collective farms in Hrodna and Mahileu oblasts. At the end of the tour they were invited to a press conference in Minsk that was hosted by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, which lasted for four hours. The transcript of the statement by the president and his responses to the various questions runs to 25,000 words. But amid the boasting about Belarus's achievements, its stability and its modernization, the reader can perceive increasing bitterness toward the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially on the issue of the Russia-Belarus Union.
Lukashenka commented, as often in the past, on the tragedy of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and he informed the journalists that "We are one people" and that it is unfair that we "live in different apartments." Thus a reunion between Belarus and Russia would be a natural event, representing the bright future of the two peoples. However, he made it plain that that union is unlikely to occur in the near future, largely because of problems created by Russia. He noted that the Belarusian side had proposed a draft of the Constitutional Act. However, at the time the draft version was supposed to have been submitted to the Supreme State Council of the two presidents for approval, and then to a referendum for acceptance, the Russian government added some amendments. According to Lukashenka, the revised Constitutional Act would be weaker than the current treaty on forming the Union state. Belarus "is categorically opposed to this."
Lukashenka maintains that Putin would like an arrangement similar in terms to that of the European Union, but such a structure is unacceptable to the Belarusian side. Another option is for Belarus to become part of Russia, but the president noted correctly that the population of his country is strongly opposed to absorption. "Even Stalin didn't go as far as that," he stated. Now he (Lukashenka) is being blamed for the failure of the proposals, but he has no choice because he does not wish to be the first and last Belarusian president. The current draft would also bring back the conditions of the early 1990s -- a favorite reference of Lukashenka -- and as soon as Belarus becomes part of Russia it would be reduced to worse shape than Chechnya. The Union can only work if the partnership is an equal one, he stressed.
Concerning the leadership of a Union state, Lukashenka hinted that both incumbent presidents might bar themselves from office if such a state is set up. "The issue is not Putin or Lukashenka," he commented. He added frankly that he could not deny the two leaders had ambitions and that they would be afraid of losing the independence of their countries. The issue of how that statement would apply to Russia was not elaborated. Lukashenka added that there could be no immediate resolution of such questions because Russia would soon enter a very busy period, lasting for approximately three years, in which that country would endure both presidential and parliamentary elections. He commented that Putin should run for a third term if he wishes, but he appreciated that the Russian president wished to adhere to the Constitution. It is not a commitment ever made by the president of Belarus.
Frequently, Lukashenka returned to the issue that most irks him: the impending hike in the price Belarus must pay for Russian gas. He maintained that Belarusian troops comprise almost 100% of the joint force on the border with NATO, and that they would be the first to sacrifice their lives to protect Russia. Yet Belarus is expected to pay gas prices higher than those in Germany. Lukashenka declared that this is a violation of an existing agreement that Belarus should pay the same prices as those in Smolensk. If his country were made to pay the proposed doubling of the price of gas, then there would be a complete breach in relations. Belarus might charge Russia $2 billion for the transit of Russian gas to the West and then pay back $1 billion for the purchase of gas for domestic use.
Two conclusions can be made from Lukashenka's remarks. First, Belarusian-Russian relations remain in an uncomfortable phase because the Belarusian government is trying to keep all its options open: to secure cheap gas and optimal conditions without making any sacrifices such as the sale of its transit company Beltransgaz to Russia. Second, neither an agreement on a new Union state or a referendum on Belarus joining such a state will take place any time soon. Russia's terms are unacceptable and the outcome would be the removal of Lukashenka from office -- either involuntarily because of the appointment of a new joint president, or because he would lose the support of the electorate. In this way, the president can maintain the fiction that he is responding to the wishes of the people on the question of the Russia-Belarus Union. At one time it seemed to be the best path for him; today it is no longer a feasible option.
(Interfax, September 29; Narodnaya gazeta, September 30; Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii, September 30; Respublika, September 30)