Belarus unimpressed by Putin unification call

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Belarus on Tuesday gave a cool reception to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement he favours a merger between the two countries into one state as in the days of the USSR.

The opposition raised the alarm over what it said were Russian dreams to essentially annex Belarus while sociologists said that support for re-unification with Russia was dwindling in the country year-by-year.

Meeting pro-Kremlin youth at a lakeside camp a day earlier, Putin said it would be "desirable" for Russia and Belarus to unite into one country although the final decision rested with the Belarussian people.

Throughout his rule of over a decade, Putin has made no secret of his admiration for the Soviet Union, whose collapse he once famously described as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

Belarus foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said he had no comment on Putin's remarks, noting only that President Alexander Lukashenko had said in the past that Belarus sovereignty was a "holy thing".

Neither Lukashenko nor any other top Belarus government figure has yet to offer any reaction to Putin's comments.

"Putin is dreaming of joining Belarus to Russia and now he has openly announced it. The worst thing is that not all politicians in Belarus understand this threat," Rygor Kastusev, a candidate against Lukashenko in 2010 presidential elections, told AFP.

He said that Russia wanted to take advantage of Belarus' current economic weakness. "This is a real threat and Russia has had these ambitions for some time."

Alexander Sosnov, deputy head of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), said Putin's comments had reflected the opinions of Russians rather than Belarussians.

"It is clear that less and less people each year want our country to merge with Russia. And they are considerably fewer than those who want Belarus to join the EU."

Belarus, a country of 10 million people which borders EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, won independence from Moscow in 1991 as the USSR collapsed.

But critics have long accused Lukashenko, whose authoritarian rule started in 1994, of making no effort to protect the country's sovereignty or promote a culture distinctive from Russia.

Lukashenko notably shows little interest in the Belarussian language, making all his speeches in Russian which remains the language of all government business although it is widely spoken in parts of the country.

After a controversial 1996 referendum backed by Lukashenko, Belarus changed its independence day to mark the anniversary of the July 3, 1944 re-capture of Minsk by the Red Army from occupying Nazi forces instead of the declaration of sovereignty from the USSR on July 27, 1991.

In the 1990s, Lukashenko appeared to show interest in a union with Russia into a single state which many believed he himself hoped to lead.

But integration moves ended only in the the grandly named "Unified State of Russia and Belarus" which resulted in little more than joint cabinet meetings as well as a customs union which Kazakhstan has also joined.

In recent months, relations became prickly as Lukashenko launched populist attacks against Moscow over energy price hikes and Russian television hit back with a muck-raking documentary called the "Godfather" about the strongman.

But Putin emphatically praised Lukashenko, saying he had "consistently followed a path of integration with Russia."

© 2011 AFP

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