Putin pushes for closer ex-Soviet union
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was due Wednesday to push for closer ex-Soviet integration after the surprise announcement of a free trade zone being created in the former communist bloc.
Former KGB agent Putin has put a closer union with the now-sovereign republics at the top of his agenda since announcing plans to return to the Kremlin in a job swap with President Dmitry Medvedev in March.
He promoted a "Eurasian Union" in an article published on October 4 -- an idea denounced by leading Republicans in the US Senate -- and on Tuesday disclosed the creation of a new post-USSR free trade zone.
"To our own surprise, after long, tense but ultimately constructive negotiations, we resolved the main issue," Putin said during a meeting with other regional prime ministers in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg.
"We have agreed to sign today an agreement on a free trade zone in the CIS," Putin said.
The 11-nation Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed in an urgent bid to give some structure to the struggling but interdependent republics that made up the Soviet Union prior to its collapse in 1991.
The union always excluded the three Baltic nations -- tiny lands that saw Soviet forces who made them a part of the USSR during World War II as occupiers -- and later lost Georgia after its 2008 war with Russia.
Isolated but energy-rich Turkmenistan has been an associate member since 2005 and asked to be given the rest of the year to form its response to the agreement. Putin said Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan also asked for more time.
Putin has also backed the idea of reducing global dependence on the dollar and on Tuesday night discussed the idea of setting up ruble-denominated trade with Ukraine during talks with counterpart Mykola Azarov.
A Russian spokesman said the two countries' finance and central bank chiefs would tackle the idea next week while Azarov said he hoped the CIS free trade zone would go into effect as early as January.
"I hope that this agreement will become a reality in January," the Interfax news agency quoted Azarov as saying.
Ukraine had been pushing for closer EU integration until the two sides' relations stalled over the jailing of opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The EU on Tuesday postponed its meeting with Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych and the CIS trade agreement was signed in Russia just a few hours later.
Putin on Wednesday was also due to chair meetings of the Eurasian Economic Community and its Customs Union -- a group also comprising Belarus and Kazakhstan and one which Russia hopes Ukraine will join.
© 2011 AFP