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Russia-Belarus Union Presidency Dismissed

A Kremlin source has dismissed as "sheer speculation" reports that President Vladimir Putin plans to create a new role for himself heading a union of Russia and Belarus.

Putin and other top Russian and Belarussian officials will consider this week a proposed framework for the long-debated merger of the two countries into a single state, officials said. The unexpected move raised speculation that Putin might seek to become leader of the new country created by the merger. That would permit him to step down as Russian president in May, as required by the Constitution, but become chief of the enlarged state.

But the Kremlin source described the speculation as "general madness going on right now."

"It's a kind of distorted form of public debate about Putin's political future. Nothing other than that," the source said Friday.

A source in the Belarussian presidential administration said he knew of no plan to agree on a union pact soon. "I doubt this is true. ... Nothing is known about anything as radical as that," he said. "You should not pay much attention to this report."

Belarus' presidential office said late last week that Putin would attend a meeting on Thursday and Friday in Minsk that would focus on a draft constitution of the Russia-Belarus Union. It gave no details, but any constitution would describe the union's governmental structure.

Citing sources in Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's entourage, Ekho Moskvy radio reported Friday that Putin would sign a union agreement with Belarus during the visit. Putin would head the new union, the radio station said.

Asked whether the meeting would pave the way for Putin's election as president of the Russia-Belarus Union, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "I don't know anything about such an issue being on the agenda."

Sergei Kostyan, a deputy head of the international affairs committee in the Belarussian parliament, said he saw no movement toward a merger.

"Putin's visit will produce no sensations," Kostyan said. "Belarus has and will remain an independent country, and Minsk has very clearly said that to our Kremlin colleagues."

But others said the Kremlin might have made Lukashenko an offer such as the vice presidency under Putin.

"Such a plan would be a lifesaver for Putin, allowing him to become the leader of a new geopolitical structure without changing Russia's Constitution," said Stanislav Shushkevich, who led Belarus from 1991 to 1994.

Any proposed merger would be subject to approval in two national referendums, but the measure could win easy approval because both nations share strong cultural and historical ties.

Reuters, AP

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