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Russia/Belarus: Yeltsin Calls For Closer Ties

Moscow, 13 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin today called for a deepening of integration with neighboring Belarus. But he said several steps need to be taken before a referendum on unifying the two countries can take place.

Presidential spokesman Sergei Yasterzhembsky said that Yeltsin had sent a letter to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka saying he believes it is necessary to realize plans to synchronize the economic reform programs of the two countries.

In the letter Yeltsin called for the completion of a customs union between the two countries which was supposed to be carried out in 1995. Yeltsin said that completion of the customs union would eliminate major losses of both states.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka welcomed Yeltsin's suggestion that their countries should consider holding a referendum on unification.

Lukashenka told reporters in Minsk, "I am very glad the Russian president has reacted in this way."

According to Yasterzhembsky, Yeltsin proposed that a meeting of the High Council of the Union between Russia and Belrus be held soon to discuss the future of integration between the two countries, including the possibility of holding a referendum.

Lukashenka has proposed that a referendum on unification take place in Belarus in March.

Earlier today, the deputy director of Yeltsin's adminstration, Sergei Shakrai, said that Russia and Belarus have a unique opportunity to fully unite this year. He told Interfax news agency that unification of Russia and Belarus would be the most effective response to NATO's plans to expand eastwards.