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Troubled Neighbors Watch Belarus Rush into Russia's Arms

Minsk's new treaty with Moscow doesn't mean a return of the Soviet Union, at least not yet

FIVE years ago, when Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was a member of his country's parliament, he cast a lone dissenting vote of which he still boasts.

He voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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But the union treaty with Russia that he will sign in Moscow next Tuesday falls short of his dreams, is not a welcome model for any other former Soviet republic, and hardly heralds the reconstruction of the USSR.

Just how tight the links between the two will be is not clear. The key question - how much authority will rest with a supranational "Supreme Council" - is still being negotiated.

But Mr. Lukashenko, who has long been pressing for closer ties with Russia, did not help his case by overstating it after talks last week with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

He emerged from that meeting full of bold proclamations of a new union, with a common budget, a single currency, and perhaps a common constitution. He was generally understood to be announcing a virtual merger of Belarus with its giant neighbor.

But his words were soon drowned out by the sound of Russian officials backing off. Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, was quick to stress that "the countries' state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity are recognized."

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin cautioned that the process of unifying currencies "may be long." And Yeltsin was characteristically blunt when he told reporters that there was no question of "forming a single state with Belarus.... Somebody has got things mixed up."

Yet Moscow and Minsk have gone further than any other governments in the former Soviet Union toward integrating their economies, and that is no coincidence, analysts here say.

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For Belarus, a struggling country of 10 million, the motivation is wholly economic. "Belarus is in a tragic economic situation," says Irina Kobrinskaya, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "It had some key enterprises for the Soviet machine-building sector ... and now they have no market."

Worse off than most other Soviet republics, Belarus has been crippled by the breakup of the Soviet Union, where industries were designed to work as part of a USSR-wide pattern. Independence has left the country without raw materials or markets, and a lack of serious reforms has contributed to economic stagnation.

For Minsk, integration with the more dynamic Russian economy can only help, and the government is keen to build on basic institutions such as a current customs union.

For Moscow, its struggling neighbor will be only an economic burden. But it is a burden that Yeltsin is ready to shoulder, for political reasons. At home, any move that appears to bolster Russian influence outside its borders steals thunder in an election year from the president's rivals.

Abroad, the treaty with Belarus can be seen as "preventive diplomacy" and a response to NATO's plans for eastward expansion to include former Soviet satellites, suggests Ms. Kobrinskaya.

But other neighbors of Russia have reacted with a good deal of concern to recent developments. After Russia's lower house of parliament voted to denounce the treaty that dissolved the USSR, the presidents of the three Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, warned against "a pattern of thinking that ... directly threatens the peace" of the region.

Ukraine's government responded with a statement that it "fundamentally opposes attempts to restore the Soviet Union in any form," hinting that it might pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) if it detected any such attempts.

But current efforts to restore some economic order to former Soviet republics seem a long way from restoring the USSR itself, and do not necessarily reflect Russian expansionism, either.

For instance, the impetus for economic integration has come mainly from the smaller republics, less able to weather the storms of transition to a market economy than Russia's huge economy. And although Russian nationalists have welcomed the deal as the first step on the road to a new Rus sian empire, government ministers talk in more prosaic terms of export markets.

Even peripheral republics that are keen on integration - such as Kyrgyzstan, whose President Askar Akayev is due here on tomorrow to sign a cooperation pact - are hesitant about Belarus's headlong rush into Moscow's arms.

At the same time, the processes of economic integration are excruciatingly slow. Harmonizing legislation in Russia, Belarus, and Kazakstan - the republics most eager for integration - to form a customs union took more than a year, according to Valeri Serov, Russian minister for CIS cooperation.

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