MOSCOW (Reuter)–Russia and Belarus signed a scaled-down Union Treaty Wednesday which relieved wary liberals in Moscow but provoked clashes between police and nationalists in the Belarussian capital.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko signed the treaty in Moscow after agreeing to rework the details following 11th-hour intervention by Russian liberals fearful of integration.
"The union does not create a single state. Each side maintains its sovereignty. At the same time it takes our integration onto a qualitatively new phase," Yeltsin said after the signing.
But Yeltsin’s words did not appease Belarussian nationalists who marched through their capital Minsk under the red and white national flag which has been replaced by Lukashenko and chanting "Independence!"
Police blocked protesters from marching on the Russian embassy and then laid into the crowd with truncheons as some activists started throwing stones.
Witness said about 100 people had been detained–including at least three journalists. Some police also appeared to be hurt and at least two ambulances rushed to the scene.
In Moscow–the accord produced delight from nationalists and communists nostalgic for the Soviet Union which collapsed in 1991.
Liberals greeted the final terms with relief. They opposed the original draft of the treaty and fought successfully for changes–saying integration moves were going too fast and fearing the hard-line Lukashenko could gain a say in decisions affecting Russia.
The accord was designed to build on a "community treaty" signed exactly a year ago. But it was a far cry from the document backed by Lukashenko–who wants to unite his state of 10 million people with Russia–a country of nearly 150 million.
A fierce debate is under way in Russia about the wisdom of rushing into partnership with a country whose poor human rights record and slow reforms have put it on a collision course with the West.
The original 17-page draft was reduced to a three-page statement of intent in furious last-minute bargaining sparked by reformers appointed last month to Russia’s new-look cabinet.
"Preparations for the document unfortunately did not take place without bitter opposition," said a grim-faced Lukashenko–barely hiding his disappointment at the signing ceremony.
But Yeltsin appeared to have performed a difficult political balancing act–winning the approval of Russia’s opposition communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
An accompanying charter–containing the meat of the original draft–was merely initialed by the two presidents and sent for six weeks of reworking and public discussion.
Yeltsin said the "Treaty on a Union of Belarus and Russia" gave citizens of the two countries freedom of movement and rights of residency–property ownership and participation in local elections in both Belarus and Russia.
It also involved big savings on border guarding and defense and would make police work easier. But he said it would not interfere with the constitution of either state and did not for the moment involve monetary union.
"It is entirely in line with those norms which have existed for a long time in the countries of the European Union.
Democracy and respect for human rights is one of the bases of our union,” Yeltsin said.
"We have a lot of work to do on creating a single currency as mentioned in the draft charter," he said–adding that debates on the charter would be outlined in media broadcasts.