Even though Belarus's new constitution declared that it is a neutral country, the reality at independence was that Russia was Belarus's neighbor, its military partner, and its largest economic partner. Belarus's heavy economic dependence on Russia, especially for critically needed fuels, has serious political consequences. Russia not only could bring political pressure on Belarus but could also bring the country to its knees economically by withholding oil and natural gas. And with more than 1.5 million ethnic Russians living in Belarus and many of the officers in the Belarusian armed forces being ethnic Russians, Russia is in a position to influence Belarus in more subtle ways as well.
The opposition is aware that the government of Alyaksandr Lukashyenka, using economic difficulties as justification, could try to append Belarus to Russia, not only economically but also militarily and politically. Lukashyenka has made it clear from the start that he wants a "special relationship" with Moscow, which, in terms of national security, would mean relying on Russia to ensure Belarus's security and, perhaps, giving Russia a "right of supervision" over Belarusian foreign and security policy.
Some hard-liners have called for closer contacts not only with the CIS but also with Russia itself. Because Belarus is so dependent on Russia already, they argue, it would make sense to be allied with it militarily as well. The Russian troops and missiles still on Belarus's soil would seem to make this alliance the logical choice, but it runs counter to the Belarusian constitution's goal of neutrality. The public itself is divided on the issue.
Nevertheless, although Russia has strong security concerns regarding Belarus, it does not appear interested in taking Belarus under its wing economically. Russia has made a number of changes in its finances and its economy that Belarus has not replicated; many in Russia see Belarus as a continuing drain on Russia's own financial resources.
The most concrete efforts to date at a close relationship between the two countries lie in the economic and monetary spheres. By June 1, 1994, Belarus had harmonized its interstate trade regulations and taxation schemes with those of Russia; most export and import fees on mutual trade were abolished. In May 1995, Belarus and Russia signed a customs union that eliminated customs checkpoints along their joint border (effective July 15, 1995) and also signed an agreement on cooperation in maintaining state borders.
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