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Putin Surprises With Belarus Plan

Increasing the pressure on his Belarussian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin went for the jackpot Wednesday and unexpectedly proposed a de facto absorption of the economically weaker country as his favored option for unifying the two Slavic neighbors.

Halfway through Kremlin talks billed as an effort to address the cooled relationship between Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, the two leaders emerged before the press and Putin outlined a schedule for reunification. His terms were the most concrete yet in the long, six-year history of the unification talks, which have been rich on rhetoric and poor on specifics.

There are two options for unification, Putin said, while Lukashenko kept silent and appeared unenthusiastic.

One is the creation of a "unified state in the full sense of the word." Putin said a referendum on the issue of unification could be held in both countries in May 2003, an election for a unified parliament in December 2003 and a presidential vote in March 2004.

Putin even read out from his notes his version of the question for the referendum. It would ask whether the citizens of Russia and Belarus would agree to the creation of a unified state, in which Russian and Belarussian regions would be equal subjects of the united state-to-be and its bodies of government formed on the basis of the Russian Constitution.

"Not because we don't like the Belarussian Constitution -- it is a constitution of a democratic state and can serve an an example for many other states -- but because Belarus is a single-entity state and Russia is a federation," Putin said before the television cameras.

The other option, Putin said, is the "creation of a state according to the principles of the European Union" with a union parliament.

Putin also called for introducing the Russian ruble as the union's currency in January 2004, instead of in 2005 as is foreseen in existing union agreements. The Russian Central Bank and Cabinet have submitted proposals to this effect, he said.

Upon his return to Minsk, Lukashenko rebuffed Putin's merger proposal.

"For Belarussians such a formula [for the referendum] would mean a choice: Do you agree to divide Belarus into seven parts [the existing regions of the country] and merge them into Russia with rights equal to those of the subjects of the Russian Federation?" Lukashenko was shown saying on Russian television, against the backdrop of his airplane. "What would be the reaction of a Belarus citizen? Absolute rejection, absolute no."

Lukashenko said unification will most likely proceed according to the treaty he and President Boris Yeltsin signed in 1996. "We have not exhausted the potential of the existing Union Treaty and will be working hard in that direction in the next two to three years."

As for the EU option, Lukashenko said it was possible only if full sovereignty of both countries is preserved.

He supported Putin's proposal for speeding up the introduction of the Russian ruble, but only if Minsk maintains its influence on the money supply, Interfax reported. "If the Belarus National Bank becomes a branch of the Russian Central Bank, such an option is categorically unacceptable," he said.

Putin's comments were a new tactic. At their last meeting in June, he criticized Lukashenko's proposals for a unified parliament and made it clear that economic integration took precedence for him over political integration. "We cannot create a supranational body with unclear functions," Putin said then. "Trying to restore the Soviet Union at any cost, including at the expense of Russia's economic interests, would only ... weaken Russia."

Predictably, Russian politicians were enthusiastic about Putin's proposal, while Belarussian officials were critical. Vyacheslav Volodin, a leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, said Wednesday was a "historic" day because the unification process had "finally switched from words to deeds."

By proposing a concrete schedule for a merger, Putin has taken the political initiative away from Lukashenko. He also appears to be playing a bigger game, which may change the outline of Russia's election campaigns in 2003 and 2004.

With Lukashenko's regime ostracized by the West and the Belarussian economy heavily dependent on Russian subsidies, and Putin's pro-Western course winning him growing international support, Putin has a chance of eventually pressing for unification on Russia's terms, said Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

While during Yeltsin's reign Lukashenko had aimed to become a political figure in Russia, his chances of doing so are low in the Putin era. At the same time, his occasional flirtations with the West have been repeatedly rebuffed and any improvement in relations is conditional on easing his authoritarian regime, which Lukashenko would be unlikely to survive.

"Lukashenko has little choice and it keeps narrowing," Ryabov said by telephone. "That's why he will grudgingly, gradually go toward unification on Russian terms. This turns out to have been Russian policy. Today Putin has simply made it transparent."

If Putin's plan works out even partially, it may also change the internal political situation in Russia. The timetable he proposed largely coincides with the parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. "That means that instead of a boring election campaign -- and everybody understands that it is going to be boring -- Putin may offer a completely new agenda," Ryabov said.

After 15 years of a Russian geopolitical retreat, Putin would have a chance of going down in history as a new "gatherer of Russian lands" -- the term lovingly bestowed on princes and tsars who consolidated Slavs under the Russian crown. That could allow him to get free of the influence of the competing Kremlin factions and go into a second term not only much stronger politically, but also with a new Constitution and hence a new distribution of power between Moscow and the regions, the chambers of parliament and the Cabinet, Ryabov said.

"Many legitimate legal questions will arise and there is a huge space for maneuvering," he said. "Putin has calculated this pretty well because his partner has practically no choice."

Lukashenko described Wednesday's meeting as "the first round of utterly serious talks" on union building. "We've gotten close to several options and have stopped there," he said. "Another, and maybe not one, meeting will be necessary to make progress in the future."

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