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Russia/Belarus: Putin, Lukashenka Press Ahead With Unification

Presidents Lukashenka and Putin at a previous meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka vowed to give new impetus to their countries' unification process during talks at the Kremlin today. Moscow’s support for Lukashenka is likely to anger the United States, a staunch opponent of the authoritarian Belarusian leader. The Kremlin meeting came a few hours after Lukashenka made scathing comments about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who yesterday branded Lukashenka a dictator.

Moscow, 22 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to reporters at the Kremlin today, Putin and Lukashenka seemed to have put past quarrels behind them.

Ahead of a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union, the Russian president advocated closer political, economic, and military ties with Belarus.

"We are meeting today to discuss the union state budget and some other problems. I would like to thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss these issues. I hope this meeting will take place as usual -- in a warm and constructive atmosphere," Putin said.

Russia and Belarus have long planned to join in a unified state with the Russian ruble as a single currency. But Putin riled Lukashenka in 2002 by proposing a plan under which Belarus would virtually become a part of Russia.

Lukashenka, however, spoke warmly of Russian-Belarusian relations today and stressed the need to boost efforts toward unifying the two nations. "In this short period of time since our last meeting [on 4 April in Sochi], there have already been some positive reactions from our people, Russians and Belarusians," he said. "They hope we will be able to move forward in the main areas of the union building and there is every reason to believe we will. There are more than 15 issues on the agenda of the Supreme State Council and I think we will discuss them, make decisions and find solutions."
Rice branded Lukashenka’s regime the "last true dictatorship" in Europe.

Lukashenka and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, signed a treaty in 1996 promoting closer cooperation with Belarus. Last summer, Putin and Lukashenka set January 2006 as the date for introducing the Russian ruble as the single currency, a move that had originally been planned for last January.

Today’s Supreme State Council meeting culminated in the signing of an agreement planning to give Russian and Belarusian citizens identical rights as regards pensions, health care, and income tax by the end of the year.

Moscow's renewed support of Lukashenka is likely to further anger Washington, which has been the most vocal critic of the Lukashenka regime.

The Kremlin talks also came one day after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded Lukashenka’s regime the "last true dictatorship" in Europe. She was speaking from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where she was attending a NATO meeting. On 20 April, she met with President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a visit to Moscow.

The West has long accused Lukashenka, a former farm manager, of rigging elections to remain in power and of trampling independent media and opposition parties.

Lukashenka, for his part, reacted with scorn to Rice’s recent criticism. Upon arrival in Moscow, he told reporters in a sarcastic tone that Rice’s statements had to be taken “philosophically.”

"It is good that she knows that there is such a country as Belarus and maybe even has an idea where it is situated," he said. "Maybe she even noticed she was flying over that country yesterday or some time before. I don't think there are any terrorists or anything like that [in Belarus], everything seems to be fine."

He also made biting jokes about what he called Rice’s poor knowledge of Russian. The secretary of state, who is a Russia expert, had spoken a few words of Russian during a live radio interview in Moscow on 20 April.

Russia's Lavrov, who also attended the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Vilnius, also expressed displeasure with Rice’s remarks. He warned on 20 April that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside.

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