Byelorussia Eyes Commonwealth Agenda
BYELORUSSIAN leader Stanislav Shushkevich hurries over to his broad desk to answer the telephone."Hello, Islam," he says, greeting Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. "The meeting is beginning at 11 a.m.; [Boris] Yeltsin is arriving at 9, [Leonid] Kravchuk at 9:20," he says, explaining when the Russian and Ukrainian presidents will arrive. The gentlemanly former physics professor was speaking as host of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States. Just three weeks ago, Minsk was given the unlikely role as its "capital," chosen as relatively neutral ground for its coordinating sessions. At that meeting not far from this quiet republican capital, Mr. Shushkevich and his fellow Slavic leaders from neighboring Russia and the Ukraine surprisingly and quickly brought the Soviet Union to its end. Today's gathering, the first since the commonwealth expanded to include 11 of the 15 former Soviet republics, promises to be tempestuous. Members are divided over complex defense and economic issues (European concerns, Page 4). "We are working on the documents," Shushkevich tells Karimov. "I am optimistic." But in an interview with the Monitor, Shushkevich freely concedes that "neither issue will be settled." When it comes to defense problems, they will manage only to "outline ways to conclude an agreement," although he hopes that a final deal will come quickly. "As for economic problems," he says, ll be happy if we resolve only a part of these issues." Defense officials from the 11 commonwealth states met Thursday and Friday to try to finalize a collective security treaty that would create a joint military structure. Officials of the former Soviet Ministry of Defense, led by Defense Minister Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, propose creating not only a unified command over nuclear weapons - which all have agreed to - but also retaining some common conventional forces. According to reports, the talks yielded only a set of documents on a broad defense policy, on the status of servicemen, on their enlistment and on a temporary coordinating body of commonwealth defense ministers, all of which will be discussed at today's meeting. The Ukraine, along with Moldavia and Azerbaijan, balked at any form of common armies. "The Ukraine is forming its own armed forces," explains Shushkevich. "Only strategic [nuclear] forces that are deployed on the territory of the Ukraine will be under common command." He worries that "the Ukrainian stance will prompt many republics to follow them." The economic tension lines are also drawn most tautly between Russia and the Ukraine, the largest and richest of the former Soviet republics, respectively. The three Slavic states originally agreed to coordinate economic-reform policies, including maintaining the ruble as a com-mon currency as Russia wished. In turn, the Russians yielded on postponing the starting point of their more radical program, liberalization of state-controlled prices, until Jan. 2. Now the tension is heightened. Both the Ukraine and Byelorussia are asking for further delay, which the Russian government is adamantly refusing. Other members such as the Communist-led conservative governments in Central Asia are opposing such reforms completely. "We want liberalization of prices no less than Russia does," explains Shushkevich, who was elected chairman of the Byelorussian parliament in September after the failed hard-line coup. But Russia will benefit unfairly from its control over the Soviet government mints, he argues, which allows it to print money at will. Inflation will be higher in Russia so goods will be drawn there, he contends - particularly food, which is in relatively better supply here and in the Ukraine. Byelorussia and the Ukraine want to protect their domestic markets by issuing coupons to their citizens for buying basic goods in state stores. The Byelorussians intend to free prices on about 70 percent of goods, making the rest purchasable only with coupons, which will thus act as a de facto separate currency. Shushkevich calls the move "a bad measure but ... necessary." Shushkevich believes the commonwealth will hold up despite these strains and will last "for a long time." He dismisses former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's assertion that the three Slavic leaders went behind his back in their Dec. 8 meeting. "Gorbachev didn't want to know," Shushkevich says. "He wanted his own plan [for a new Union] to work. He didn't want to accept a structure in which he couldn't find a place for himself." The decision to eliminate a central government is "very logical - we are afraid of totalitarianism," argues Shushkevich, the son of a Byelorussian poet sent to the Siberian prison camps by Stalin. "There is a need not to lose the simple communication between former members of the Union, but at the same time, not to have a center which dictates its conditions to everybody." In talks with journalists later, Mr. Gorbachev was particularly angry that he learned about the commonwealth only after Mr. Yeltsin called US President Bush. Shushkevich, who was given the task of calling Gorbachev, says the call was delayed by a problem with the special secure line. After Shushkevich told him the contents of the commonwealth declaration, "Gorbachev said, 'Do you realize what a negative reaction you'll face from the world community because your decision is unconstitutional?' I told him we had already informed the press and the reaction was quite calm. Even President Bush wasn't very disappointed and said he would carefully study the documents. At that point, the president [Gorbachev] got very indignant and asked me to hand the phone to Yeltsin. I said I would be very happy to do this."