Russia and Belarus today signed another agreement declaring their intention to merge, but the agreement was largely symbolic. During the ceremony, President Boris Yeltsin seemed to become briefly disoriented and almost fell over.
Yeltsin and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus celebrated the signing of a new commitment to unify the two countries, which they first declared in 1996, but the document is long on goals and short on specifics. The idea of a merger between the two Slavic nations has enjoyed political backing in both countries, but the mechanics have barely moved. Today's agreement was no exception.
Yeltsin, 68, who was recently hospitalized for pneumonia, was reading his speech from a prepared text when he seemed incapable of turning the pages. "Is this the end?" he asked, re-reading a paragraph he had just read, and then began to stumble when he was steadied by Lukashenko. Yeltsin departed tonight for a two-day visit to China.
The merger of Belarus, a unitary state, and Russia, a federation, has long been complicated by legal obstacles and the countries' markedly different economic and political situations. Lukashenko has imposed an authoritarian rule under which his political opponents have been silenced; Belarus has also shunned the free market and private property, with which Russia has struggled in recent years.
"The command methods of running the economy in Belarus will have to be left in the past, this is without a doubt" said Anatoly Lisitsyn, governor of the Yarslavl region of Russia. "We are not going to follow Belarus's way today in terms of the economy."
Thus, the new treaty sets distant goals. For example, work on a "common monetary unit" would be completed after six years, a unified budget would be phased in over four years, and a unified trade and customs policy toward outside nations over six years. "When people speak about the time scale, we say that this will take five or eight or perhaps 10 years," Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko, who has been impatient with the slow progress of unification, said he intended to sign another treaty with Yeltsin before the Russian president is scheduled to leave office next summer. "This is not the last agreement we will sign with [Yeltsin]," Lukashenko predicted.
A few days after President Clinton criticized Russia for its bombing in Chechnya, Yeltsin declared that "this agreement" with Belarus "is not aimed at anyone, not even against Clinton."
The agreement was so mild that it drew no objections from President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan, who has said his internal Russian republic might not remain in the federation if it were merged with Belarus. "It's not a matter of setting up a new state," he said today of the latest agreement. "Tatarstan would have complaints then."
The agreement did set off a protest in Minsk among Lukashenko's opposition, which tried to block a main thoroughfare in the capital. Five people were arrested, according to the Interfax news agency.