Putin Pushes for 'Eurasian Union'

ASTANA, Kazakhstan President Vladimir Putin arrived in Kazakhstan on Monday for his first official visit as president to Moscows key Central Asian ally.

During Putins last visit as prime minister in September 1999, explosions ripped through apartment blocks in Moscow, and an offensive against Chechen separatists was launched.

"We will rub them out in the outhouse," Putin famously said of the Chechen rebels on that visit, as he set about establishing the tough-guy image that would sweep him to victory in the May presidential election.

A year later, he is secure in office and a new, cautiously statesmanlike image is emerging. His talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev are likely to be less dramatic.

"I think the two presidents will discuss issues of cooperation with Russia over the next five years," said Lev Tarakov, head of Nazarbayevs news service.

Putin went straight into talks with Nazarbayev, after which the two leaders are expected to sign a series of bilateral documents and stage a joint news conference.

Since becoming president, Putin has visited two Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but those trips were seen as an attempt to promote Russias role in those countries.

Russia and Kazakhstan are already important allies, with Russia renting the Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan. This is the base from which the first cosmonauts to live on board the International Space Station are due to blast off later this month.

The main aim of the visit, which runs to Wednesday, is to pursue a Nazarbayev plan to create a common economic union between Russia, Kazakhstan and the three former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.

The presidents of all five states will meet Tuesday and sign a series of documents on a new "Eurasian Union," designed as a closer grouping than the customs union they already have.

"The status of the union must be raised. All five presidents are agreed about this," Kazakhstans ambassador to Russia, Tair Mansurov, told the Kazakh newspaper Respublika in an interview.

"Today, we will discuss not only economic but also political problems, strengthen military cooperation and move closer in the social and humanitarian spheres."

Russia is an important military power in volatile former Soviet Central Asia, where Islamist rebels have attacked Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops this summer and where drug running from Afghanistan is a major economic activity.

It retains military bases in Kazakhstan and maintains over 10,000 guards to protect Tajikistans frontier with Afghanistan.

Indeed, from Astana Putin flies to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, for a meeting with leaders of some former Soviet states, which have a Collective Security Treaty. The presidents will discuss further the security problems in the region.