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Russia, Belarus to Integrate Countries
January 20, 2003

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - After months of acerbic disputes, the leaders of Russia and Belarus reaffirmed their commitment Monday to closer integration under a union treaty that has developed slowly since it was created nearly seven years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, vowed to push ahead with plans for closer economic ties and a constitution-like document that would give what is now a loose alliance more political weight.

``Despite heated discussions, the sides moved forward in several key spheres last year,'' Putin said. He said the two countries agreed that ``the course toward creation of a union state is the strategic direction of Russian-Belarusian relations.''

Putin had criticized the union in June, saying he didn't want to create anything resembling the Soviet Union. He suggested that Russia's economy would be hurt by unification with Belarus, a country whose struggling economy is one of the least reformed in the region.

In August, Putin surprised and infuriated Lukashenko by offering a plan under which the two countries would unite as one under the Russian Constitution, suggesting that Russia would absorb its smaller neighbor and Lukashenko would lose power.

Putin also offered a European Union-style arrangement as an alternative, but Lukashenko angrily rejected both suggestions.

After the United States and 14 EU nations imposed travel bans on Lukashenko to protest his authoritarian policies, the isolated leader came to Moscow in November and pledged Belarus' eternal friendship with Russia.

The presidents said then that efforts at closer integration were moving forward, but despite plans for a joint parliament and a constitution-like document for the union, analysts say its future as anything more than a loose alliance is in doubt.

Lukashenko disagreed with that assessment.

``The main result of last year, I believe, is that we preserved our union and did not retreat from the frontiers we'd reached,'' Lukashenko said. ``Both the supporters and the opponents of our union see that integration is continuing.''

Putin stressed that the countries must work faster to introduce the Russian ruble as a single currency, though he said it would probably be impossible to do so by January 2004, as Russia had hoped.

Putin emphasized the importance of agreement on natural gas and Lukashenko promised that a joint venture to transport Russian gas through Belarus would be created by the middle of this year.

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