All Eyes on Putin as He Starts a Visit to Belarus

MINSK -- President Vladimir Putin traveled Thursday to Belarus for a visit that will be watched closely for signs that the two neighbors are advancing toward a long-discussed merger.

The creation of a single state could allow Putin to become the leader of a new land after he steps down from the presidency next May.

The Kremlin moved to quash talk of such a possibility, denying on Thursday that Putin's talks on Friday with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and other officials would touch upon a draft constitution that would describe the structure of a unified country's government. Prior to the meeting, Putin was to meet privately with Lukashenko late Thursday.

Last week, Ekho Moskvy radio quoted unidentified members of the Lukashenko administration as saying Moscow and Minsk had struck a deal under which Putin would become president of a Russia-Belarus union while Lukashenko would be speaker of its parliament.

Pavel Borodin, secretary of the existing Russian-Belarussian executive body, said Wednesday that drafts of the constitution being considered would give the president of a new unified country the power to rule over the current national governments.

He said the new constitution, once agreed upon by governments, would be subject to approval by each country's parliament and put to voters in national referendums.

Many politicians and observers in both nations, meanwhile, said Putin's unusual visit to Belarus signaled his renewed interest in the long-debated merger plan.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Putin tries to speed up a union with Belarus ... to become the president of the unified state," Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said this week.