Striking back at the West for its planned expansion of NATO, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a pact Wednesday with Belarus to form a new union that will seek economic and political integration of the two nations.
By signing the pact with Belarus’ notorious dictator, Alexander G. Lukashenko, Yeltsin gains a buffer between Russia’s western border and Poland - a likely candidate for NATO membership. But the move toward reunification with Belarus - a small country with a backward economy and a Soviet-style leader - could ultimately prove a financial and political liability for Russia.
The treaty is a beefed-up version of a similar pact signed by the duo last year and was sought by Lukashenko in the hope of bailing out Belarus’ struggling economy. Critics of the union contend that it also could open a door for the ambitious Lukashenko, who they say aspires to succeed Yeltsin.
The move gratified those residents in both countries who long for the good old days of the mighty Soviet Union, which until 1991 included Russia, Belarus and 13 other republics.
However, faced with opposition - including objections from members of his own government - Yeltsin backed away at the last minute from signing a more sweeping treaty that would have brought the two nations into even closer partnership.
“The union of Belarus and Russia doesn’t create a single state,” Yeltsin said at a Kremlin ceremony with Lukashenko to sign the agreement. “Both countries preserve their sovereignty.”
The pact cites the “spiritual closeness and common historical destiny” of the two countries and calls for “integration in the economic and other spheres of public life.”
Among the goals of the union are “to ensure security and maintain a high level of defense capability,” and “to help ensure European security.”
The treaty is the biggest step toward reintegration by any of the former Soviet republics since the empire collapsed.
Lukashenko, 42, has become an international pariah in recent months for his seizure of broader presidential powers, his crackdown on the Belarus opposition movement and his repression of the press. Last week, Lukashenko ordered the deportation of a Russian television correspondent who had been covering the opposition movement in Belarus.
After Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed the pact, Russian television showed footage of police in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, beating and kicking demonstrators whom they had arrested in protests against the new treaty.
Belarus may be best remembered in the United States most recently for shooting down a hot-air balloon in 1995 during a major international race, killing two American balloonists.
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