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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 06:28 GMT
Russia, Belarus edge closer
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin
Lukashenko (left) looked 'subdued and humbled'
The Presidents of Russia and Belarus, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, say they have agreed on a timetable for further integration of the two countries.


Belarus has always been and will always be a friend to Russia

Alexander Lukashenko
However, they stopped short of giving exact dates or details of the creation of the new union state.

Mr Lukashenko was invited to Moscow shortly after all European Union states - except for Portugal - and the United States imposed a travel ban on him and his senior ministers over their human rights record.

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow says that Mr Lukashenko was obviously mindful of the international isolation he got himself into, and thanked Mr Putin for his support.

Our correspondent says that, having been ostracised by the West, Mr Lukashenko now sees Moscow as his only hope.

'Humbled president'

The union project has been under way for five years, but has been beset by wrangles between Moscow and Minsk about power-sharing in the new state.

Our correspondent says that the presidents' news conference was an anticlimax - but their body language said more than their words.

In contrast to a spectacular outburst just three months ago, when Mr Lukahenko accused Mr Putin of insulting Belarus by trying to turn it into another province of Russia, this time he looked subdued and humbled.

Mr Lukashenko said Belarus was Russia's last frontier which it can not afford to lose.

"Belarus has always been and will always be a friend to Russia," he said.

Mr Lukashenko also played down the significance of Washington's move, reportedly saying: "I've never gone to the United States for bilateral talks up to now and I think I'll do without it now, too."

The US has described the Belarussian president as Europe's last dictator.

Key fuel issue

For his part, President Putin said Moscow had given up a lot over the past 10 years, and it was time to start picking up things.

Experts say he was referring to the major issue between the two countries - such as Russian oil and gas supplies at subsidised rates - which still remain unresolved.

Russian companies want to end this unprofitable practice and are demanding that Belarussian state-owned enterprises are sold off.

After arriving in Moscow, Mr Lukashenko said he would soon put up Belarus' natural gas pipeline network, Beltransgaz, for privatisation.

He would sign the necessary papers next week, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

See also:

19 Nov 02 | Europe
22 Jun 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
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