Thursday, 13 December 2007

'Putinologists' sceptical about immediate Russia - Belarus merger

In the depths of the Cold War a political science analysing the intentions of the CPSU leadership developed in the West. This field became known as Kremlinology. Recent machinations within Russia’s ruling elite have become as intriguing, labyrinthine and clandestine as they were at any time during the Cold War, and the focus is on one man in particular. Analysts of Russian politics have of necessity become ‘Putinologists’ during his tenure as President.

To add to an already convoluted set of possibilities created by Putin’s lapsing second term, speculation is mounting that the Russian Federation and Belarus may be planning an imminent political union. The notion that the two states may reunite has existed since the USSR was dissolved. There is little to separate the countries in terms of language or culture and Belarus has conspicuously not followed the route favoured by other ex Soviet republics of seeking closer connections with the EU and NATO.

During the 1990s Belarus suffered even greater economic trauma than Russia itself and despite public support, concerns about the cost of absorbing a poorer republic was a disincentive to Russia encouraging ideas of reunion. Economic recovery in both countries and a common antipathy toward the US and EU diagnosing faults in their systems of government mean that the possibility of merging is much more serious.

Belarus’ president Lukashenko has even more authoritarian impulses than Putin and despite increased cooperation and close ties between the countries, he has clashed with the Russian leader over gas provision. Whether the Belarusian is prepared to cede control even to Putin remains to be seen. The two men are currently meeting in Minsk to discuss cooperation and harmonisation between the two states.

Closer integration on a gradual basis is the stated aim of the two governments, but the possibility that constitutional changes might allow Putin to become President of a united state has been exercising commentators. They speculate that the process might be accelerated in order to subordinate both Russia and Belarus’ presidencies to Putin.

Immediate political union with Belarus is perhaps one of the more unlikely options which Putin is likely to follow in order to retain political power. A process of cooperation between the two states will continue and as their interests become more closely entwined it is likely that integration will take place at some time in the future, but Lukashenko is too headstrong a figure to allow this merely as a mechanism for Putin to remain head of government.

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