Union With Russia Faces Dim Prospects for Belarus Leader

There is a man who has his eye on the Russian presidency. But he isn't a Russian citizen and he may never become one.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko makes no effort to hide his desire to reunite his country with Russia to the east. It has been his stated aim since sweeping to power in 1994. His aides say he harbors hopes of being the next Boris Yeltsin.

On the ground, unification is a popular notion among many Russians, who miss the strong Soviet Union of days past. Some 38 percent of Russians want to unify into one state, according to a survey in May by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies.

But piecing back together two bits of the shattered Soviet Union is no easy matter. A union agreement signed by the two nations in 1997 has not led to full merger, which analysts say would be politically and technically complicated to put into effect.

And Belarus may have missed its chance.

With a financial crisis in Russia today, it is unlikely that Moscow would want to take aboard a struggling, weak economy resisting reform. As it is, a customs union between the two has been unprofitable for Russia.

"From the economic point of view, it would be very difficult for the Russian Federation to burden itself with obligations connected with Belarus," says Igor Kurayev, spokesman for the Moscow-based Institute of Electoral Systems and Parliaments.

Politically, too, Russia would be unwilling to award Mr. Lukashenko the equal status he demands. Some analysts believe Lukashenko may be wasting his time trying to woo regional Russian leaders, whom he often hosts at his lavish digs. In case of a union, the regional bosses would be unlikely to welcome a new contender in their attempt to assert themselves over Moscow's domination of politics.

But full reunification may not be necessary for Moscow. Under a recent defense pact, Belarus operates forward-warning and air defense-systems on the Polish border to help Russia counter NATO expansion.

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