Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Angered by Russia's Delay on Merger

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has angrily lashed out at Russia, accusing it of stalling the proposed merger of the two former Soviet republics.

Earlier this week, President Boris Yeltsin approved a draft agreement on a Russian-Belarussian union and ordered his aides to prepare it for publication in the media for broad discussion.

But Lukashenko said Thursday that the document fell short of his expectations and barely changes the status quo. "This treaty has absolutely nothing different from the one we already have,'' Lukashenko said during a visit to a hospital in the Belarussian capital, Minsk. "It is a laughing stock, not a treaty.''

In 1996, Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed an agreement boosting political, economic and military ties between the two countries, but stopping short of creating a single state. Lukashenko, an ardent admirer of the Soviet Union, has been strongly pushing for a full merger of his nation of 10 million with Russia.

To his frustration, the latest draft agreement again stops short of replacing separate presidencies with a single union presidency. Instead, it simply proposes setting up a body consisting of officials from both nations. Such a body already exists now under a different name.

Russian politicians have been noncommittal toward full merger with Belarus, partly because of fear of Lukashenko's authoritarian ways and his unpredictability. Many also warn that the move would put an additional strain on Russia, which is struggling with its own economic problems.The Belarussian economy is one of the most unreformed in the former Soviet Union, with virtually all assets and markets under government control. Russia has been supplying Belarus with oil and natural gas at domestic prices, which are far cheaper than the world price, but the sinking Belarussian economy hasn't been able to meet even the discounted prices.

Lukashenko wants the merger as a way of lessening Belarus' economic problems, and he also has expressed ambitions to become the leader of the unified state - a prospect that especially worries many Russian politicians.

Lukashenko has been under strong criticism from international human rights groups and Western governments for his crackdown on dissent and free media, but he retains broad popularity in Belarus, thanks to his fiery populism and efforts to preserve the Soviet-era social safety net.

However, soaring prices and bare shelves have started to feed discontent. About 10,000 people took part in a protest in Minsk on Thursday that was organized by unions to protest worsening economic conditions. The square where the rally took place was surrounded by heavy police cordons, but there were no clashes. Similar actions were held Thursday in other Belarussian cities. Participants demanded that the government increase the average salary, which is now equivalent to about $30 a month.