Russia and fellow Slavic neighbor Belarus have been talking about a union since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Last week, Moscow and Minsk finally outlined terms in a draft treaty, which Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenko are expected to sign before the end of the year.
But it's not clear whether the wedding will ever take place.
"In our political life the project of reuniting Russia and Belarus is a sacred cow," says Svyatoslav Kaspe, an analyst with the independent Foundation for Public Politics in Moscow. "But any discussion of details quickly becomes bogged down."
Russia and Belarus have already created a customs union and joint intergovernmental consultative bodies. Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Lukashenko had pledged the draft treaty would be the final stage in establishing a single state with one president, a joint parliament, and a single currency - dubbed the "Slavic euro."
"We are calling now for merging our nations into one union state," Yeltsin said in launching negotiations last Christmas.
But Alexander Tyagunov, a key supporter of the merger in the Duma, Russia's lower house, calls the actual treaty "a disappointing and weak document.
"The only thing to be said in its favor is that it keeps the process of integration alive. It certainly does not move it forward." While the treaty would mandate a free economic zone and a common currency, it makes no provisions for forging a single government.
The drive for reunification was born of a strange relationship between Yeltsin and Lukashenko, the increasingly autocratic and antireformist leader of Belarus.
Analysts say Yeltsin is anxious to go down in history not as the man who destroyed the USSR, but as the founder of a new union. There have been mutters that he might try to use the joint state to extend his rule beyond 2000, when the Constitution requires him to step down. Slobodan Milosevic successfully managed a similar sleight of hand in 1997, going from president of Serbia to president of Yugoslavia.
But Alexei Chesnakov, an expert with the Center for Political Trends, an independent think tank in Moscow, dismisses such concerns. "Russia's internal political balance has changed in the past year, and it's quite clear the elite will not tolerate Yeltsin staying in power through such a mechanism," he says.
Lukashenko, for his part, had hoped to use the union as his entry onto the stage of Russian politics. The Belarussian leader reportedly was furious that the latest treaty fails to create a supranational presidency.
At first glance, it looks like a perfect marriage: Belarus, a nation of 10 million with a disproportionate share of Soviet-era industry, suffered terribly when cut off from Russian raw materials, which Moscow tycoons dream of reuniting. Russia's military brass favor union as a means of extending the country's buffer against NATO.
"The country's economy is on the verge of collapse. Only union with Russia offers a way out," says Alexander Chepurenko, an analyst with the Institute of Social and National Problems in Moscow. "Almost everyone in Belarus wants union."
Not quite everyone, however. Dozens of demonstrators were injured and more than 90 were detained Oct.17 in clashes with police, in a march to protest the draft treaty, Lukashenko, and the disappearance of several prominent dissidents.
According to a recent survey, 53 percent of Russians support full union with Belarus. With parliamentary elections coming December 19 and the presidential poll due in June, it's the kind of number that politicians notice.
And yet, almost no Russian leader is likely to pursue the option. "Only the Communists truly support union with Belarus, and that's just on principle," says Mr. Kaspe. "Otherwise it is a minefield that could bring Russia to economic disaster and political ruin." Belarus's Soviet-style economy would require vast infusions of Russian aid - resources the near-bankrupt Moscow government does not have. Lukashenko's dictatorial style also repels the Russian political elite, who have grown used to an open press, freedom of speech, and elections.
Still, the idea is so popular that it can't be closed either. "You can trust the politicians to keep this going," says Alexei Kuzmin, with the International Institute of Political Humanism in Moscow. "For our politicians, the most attractive feature of Russia-Belarus union is the endless character of the process and the fact that it is impossible to implement."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society