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Putin eyes full merger with Belarus

The union, to be agreed on this week, could enable Russia's popular president to retain power by creating a new Constitution.

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President Vladimir Putin may be about to unveil a political bombshell: a full-scale union between Russia and its smaller Slavic neighbor Belarus.

It's a plan that not only would expand Russia's territory and national prestige; it could also give Mr. Putin, required to step down when his second term ends in March, a new lease on power by producing a fresh Constitution.

Citing Kremlin sources, the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station reported Friday that Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will sign a union treaty during Putin's two-day visit to Minsk this week.

A Kremlin spokesman said the report came "from the realm of speculative fantasies," though he did not deny that the long-debated Russia-Belarus union might be on the verge of realization.

The purported deal, to be endorsed by popular referendum, would involve a full merger of the two countries, including common currency, legal system, armed forces, and state symbols. Putin would be likely to become the new superstate's provisional leader and Mr. Lukashenko its speaker of parliament, the station said.

Belarus's beleaguered opposition called on Belarussians to the streets this week to protest "imminent annexation" by Russia.

"It has become clear that Russia will use economic levers [such as high energy prices] to annex Belarus, or at least compel it to join a 'union state,' " Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the Belarussian Popular Front coalition, said in a statement.

Belarus is Russia's closest ally among ex-Soviet states and has long been dependent on Moscow for energy supplies, security assistance, and economic subsidies. The two countries have had a partial union since 1996, when Lukashenko championed the idea. Since the youthful and popular Putin took power from a weak Boris Yeltsin, however, Lukashenko has cooled to the idea.

But Russia has racheted up the pressure on Lukashenko. Last week the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom announced a new round of hikes that will triple the price Belarus paid barely a year ago. "As Lukashenko searches for ways to survive politically, it may be that cutting a deal with Putin is starting to look like his best option," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

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