Putin favours Russia, Belarus unification

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday said he was in favour of Russia and its western neighbour Belarus uniting into a single state, as in the days of the Soviet Union.

"This is possible and very desirable," said Putin, when asked at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on Russia's Lake Seliger if Russia and Belarus could merge into one entity.

"It depends completely on the will of the Belarussian people," he added.

Putin's surprise remarks come as Belarus battles a massive economic crisis which has seen Russia extend a bailout loan to its neighbour and eye some of its most prized economic assets.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is also pressing on with an unprecedented crackdown against the opposition following his controversial re-election in December which has seen opponents jailed and protests brutally broken up.

Economists have blamed Lukashenko for doing little to reform an outdated economic model which has seen Belarus develop one of the biggest current account deficits in the world.

But Putin lavished praise on the man who has ruled Belarus for the last 17 years and was once dubbed Europe's last dictator by the United States.

"Despite the problems that spring up from time to time -- like the economy, energy, the rows with gas -- you need to give respect to the leadership of the country and Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, who has consistently followed a path of integration with Russia," Putin said.

Russia and Belarus are members of a customs union and also a so-called "unified state" that brings their cabinets together for joint meetings at regular intervals.

But until now, the two states have maintained separate systems with attempts at further unity ending in failure.

In the 1990s Lukashenko was an impassioned proponent of a full union of Belarus and Russia, with some observers believing he had his eye on occupying the Kremlin as president of such a country.

But his pro-Russian rhetoric cooled once Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000, and he has since sought to portray himself as the defender of the ordinary Belarussian.

Meanwhile, Putin also indicated he would not be against the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia becoming part of Russia, if its people were in favour.

Russia recognised South Ossetia as independent following Moscow's 2008 war with Tbilisi over Georgian rebel regions.

"The future will depend on the Ossetian people," Putin said. "You know Russia's position -- when Georgia engaged in military action, Russia supported South Ossetia."

© 2011 AFP

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