MINSK, Feb. 21 -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin moved to secure Moscow's military presence in Belarus Tuesday, signing an agreement with his Belarussian counterpart establishing joint protection of the smaller Slavic nation's borders. The pact was one of three treaties signed by Yeltsin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on the first day of the Russian leader's two-day visit to the Belarussian capital Minsk. Yeltsin and Lukashenko put their pens to a wide-ranging political treaty and a document calling for an integrated customs system, but the Kremlin boss appeared particularly pleased with the border deal. 'The program of joint border protection is important for both countries and for the Commonwealth of Independent States,' the Russian president said. 'Nobody loses, everybody wins.' The border agreement will allow Moscow to control two systems in Belarus that warn of nuclear attack and to base military aircraft there, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told the Interfax news agency in Minsk. Yeltsin pushed with mixed success for an agreement allowing Russia to defend the borders of 11 former Soviet republics at a C.I.S. summit this month, and Tuesday he said other C.I.S. nations should follow the example of Belarus. Moscow's military commanders viewed Belarus as a buffer zone during the Cold War, and Yeltsin has led recent protests against the speedy expansion of NATO to Belarus and other Russian neighbors. A nation of 10 million that separates Russia and Poland, Belarus is the smallest of the Slavic trio around which the Soviet Union was built, after Russia and Ukraine.
The possibility of tighter relations among the three countries is likely to cause alarm among their neighbors, who fear the return of an expansionist Russian empire or Soviet-style regime. Lukashenko, a populist, pro-reform figure trying to drag his country out of its economic doldrums, has called for a Slavic union based on the 'three brotherly republics.' He has also criticized the loose, 12- member Commonwealth of Independent States that replaced the Soviet Union. Before leaving for Minsk, Yeltsin moved to quell talk that his trip reflected the Kremlin's desire to establish a Slavic union or revive Soviet-style Moscow imperialism. 'Deeper integration with Belarus does not mean a rebirth of the Soviet Union,' Yeltsin said in comments reported by the Itar-Tass news agency. 'Actually, this is the creation of a new type of association similar to the European Union.' 'Earlier in the USSR, nobody except Moscow had any rights,' Yeltsin said, 'We want to create a union of fully sovereign states.' Yeltsin said relations between Russia and Belarus are 'the closest among all the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States,' due to 'common history and religion, closely related languages and a good understanding of each other,' the Itar-Tass news agency reported. But while the presidents signed a customs agreement and a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation loosely governing political and trade relations, the Slavic neighbors have shied away from a close economic alliance that appeared near reality several months ago. Talks on an economic union unleashed a storm of protest last year among pro-reform economists and lawmakers in Moscow, who said Russia's comparatively stable currency could collapse under the the weight of Belarus's stagnant economy. Belarus has struggled to transform its economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Inflation has ravaged its currency -- affectionately known as the 'bunny' -- and the conservative government has clung to price controls and Soviet-era planning, lagging far behind Russia in privatization of state property.