Putin's Future Not on Minsk Agenda

APPavel Borodin, the top official in the Russia-Belarus Union, gesturing during a news conference on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin will travel to Minsk on Thursday to discuss steps to create a single state from Russia and Belarus amid speculation that he could head the unified country after his second term ends in May.

But Pavel Borodin, head of the existing Russian-Belarussian executive body, said Wednesday that Putin's scheduled discussions with President Alexander Lukashenko were not connected with Putin's political future.

Putin is going to Minsk "for our people," Borodin said at a news conference. "He works for the people, not for himself."

Putin is scheduled to hold talks with Lukashenko on Thursday and Friday, and the leaders will sign a financial agreement and deals on oil and gas deliveries, Borodin said. They will also agree on a loan for Belarus, Borodin said. He did not elaborate.

Putin on Monday endorsed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for president, and Medvedev responded Tuesday by offering Putin a job as prime minister should he win the March 2 election. A Russia-Belarus merger would increase Putin's options after he leaves office.

Putin and Lukashenko discussed the two-day meetings by telephone Tuesday, the Kremlin said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the trip would generate a major announcement, saying the presidents would discuss "all aspects of continuous integration."

It was Minsk that announced the upcoming talks, while the Kremlin kept silent about the trip until the last minute. Peskov said Wednesday that the trip had been on Putin's itinerary for some time.

Borodin said he spoke with Putin on Tuesday and that the president did not want the talks to be overshadowed by speculation about his political future.

A draft constitution being considered would give the leader of the single state power over current national governments, Borodin said. If the countries agree on the draft, it would be put to voters in national referendums in both countries, he said. Russia and Belarus have yet to agree on the leadership structure of the unified state, Borodin said. Under one scenario, he said, the Russian president would become head of the single state, while the Belarussian president would become vice president.

Another option would be having the two presidents become vice presidents of the new state, while a third official is elected president, Borodin said.

Officials will hold an executive-body meeting Saturday, where they will discuss the constitution, the budget, foreign policy and economic cooperation, he said. Russia and Belarus agreed to boost ties in 1997, but talk of a close merger has so far led nowhere.

Some analysts were skeptical that Lukashenko was ready to cede control. Angry over Russia's threats to cut gas supplies, Lukashenko said in August that he would never "kneel down" before the Kremlin.

"There is no political will, and [Putin] can't force Lukashenko," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of the Minsk-based Mizes Research Center.

But the two still need each other, Romanchuk said: Lukashenko needs financial aid, and Putin will promote the interests of Russian companies, like VTB and Sberbank. VTB, which bought a controlling stake in Belarus' Slavneftebank earlier this year, is scheduled to announce the opening of its head office in Belarus later this week.