Friday, July 22, 2005

When Despots Get Together

In the London Times, Jeremy Page describes how "Europe's last dictator" and Putin have agreed a unity plot to stay in power:
President Lukashenko of Belarus arrived in Russia yesterday to promote a reunification plan for the two countries to offset growing Western influence in the former Soviet Union.

Some analysts say that the new union would allow Vladimir Putin to stay on as President after 2008, when, having served two terms, he is obliged to step down under the present Russian Constitution.

The two countries formed a loose union in 1996, but it has been hampered by economic disputes and personal animosity between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin.

Both leaders, however, appear to have put aside their differences after revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and now seem to be forging ahead with plans to form a new union.

Russian officials say that they are drawing up a draft constitution to be presented to the two leaders in the autumn, and that they are discussing plans for the Russian rouble to be introduced in Belarus next year.

"It is much more of a reality than people think," said Ivan Makoshok, a spokesman for the embryonic Russia-Belarus Union, estimating that full reunification could take as little as two years.

Mr Lukashenko has ruled his country of ten million people for more than a decade by reviving Soviet-style economic controls, silencing opponents and holding a series of flawed elections and referendums.

But analysts say he now fears that he could become the latest in a sequence of autocrats across the former Soviet Union to be toppled in a Western-backed revolution.

The United States has called President Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator" and last year passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which authorises assistance for a regime change in what the White House calls an "outpost of tyranny". Mr Putin, meanwhile, is anxious to prevent another former Soviet state turning its back on Moscow and
pursuing integration with the West.

The idea of reunification has been championed by Pavel Borodin, the secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, who hired Mr Putin as his deputy while serving as head of the Kremlin's property department in 1996. The only question is who would head the new union. Talks on reunification came to a halt in 2002 after Mr Lukashenko balked at the idea of Mr Putin taking the top post and demanded equal status.

Mr Lukashenko still harbours aspirations to share power with Mr Putin and some analysts say that he is simply trying to extract economic concessions from Russia. But others see a genuine convergence of interests, if not a warming, which could ultimately lead to the creation of a new political, as well as economic, union.

Aleksandr Yakovenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "It would not be an exaggeration to say that bilateral relations have been ascending, resting on the centuries-long brotherhood of the Russian and Belarussian people. We are discussing making preparations for agreements on the legal status of the union state's property and on providing Russian and Belarussian citizens with equal rights."
(Hat tip: Marius)

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