With kisses and applause in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin and the president of Belarus sealed a deal Friday to create an ill-defined union between Russia and its smaller, authoritarian neighbor.
The union charter, initialed by Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, expands on a treaty concluded by the Slavic nations last month.
The two nations plan to coordinate foreign policy, economic reforms and military activities, create joint energy and transport systems and possibly introduce a common currency and citizenship. A Supreme Council of top leaders from both countries is to outline joint policies.
But the practical effect of the move, which some see as Russia’s way of counteracting NATO’s push into Eastern Europe, is less than clear.
It’s something of an odd alliance.
Yeltsin heads a sprawling nation of 150 million, and is an advocate of economic and political reform. Lukashenko’s country has just 10 million people, and he rules it with neo-Soviet authoritarianism, permitting little dissent and keeping tight curbs on the media.
The “union” falls far short of creating a single state, and the document’s final text has been softened after by Russian liberals.
Russian reformers say Belarus’ Soviet-era economy could drag down cash-strapped Russia, and they are wary of Lukashenko’s nearly unlimited powers.
Lukashenko’s nationalist opponents in Belarus say he rules like a despot and is bent on reversing the country’s independence.
But most Belarusians seem to support union with Russia, hoping it will lead Belarus out of its own economic crisis.