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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Visits in Hope of Closer Ties

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko met with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for talks on bringing the two countries closer together.

Lukashenko, who has been shunned by the West, thanked Putin for backing stronger ties between Moscow and Minsk, saying he attached "great importance to this support," RIA-Novosti reported.

Putin said he was certain that the talks would "give a good additional impetus to the development of our cooperation," at the start of their meeting in Zavidovo, about 100 kilometers northwest of Moscow.

The Kremlin said Lukashenko had come at Putin's invitation, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in a statement that the two leaders would discuss the proposed union between the countries.

Lukashenko has made no secret of his desire to reunite his country with Russia. Lukashenko and Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, signed a treaty in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of creating a single state.

Ties between the two predominantly Slavic nations were strained in 2002, when Putin floated a plan under which Belarus would essentially be subsumed into Russia. But recent meetings have brought improvements, and last year Putin and Lukashenko set January 2006 as the target for introducing the Russian ruble as the single currency.

Yakovenko said the two countries were preparing to sign an agreement outlining ownership in the new union, and guaranteeing equal rights for Russians and Belarussians.

Europe and the United States consider Lukashenko a pariah for his iron-fisted rule of Belarus, where he has quashed opposition parties, shut down newspapers and maintained power through fraudulent referendums. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Russia, which has been alarmed at the arrival in power of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine, sees Belarus as an important, if awkward ally in its drive to maintain its regional dominance.

In a sign of Russia's ambivalent attitude, a Kremlin-connected foreign policy analyst warned Putin on Wednesday that the human rights situation was worsening in Belarus.

Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, said many Russians had been falsely accused of minor economic crimes and imprisoned in Belarus. He said there was no free news media, and that foreign journalists were being expelled.

"The situation with human rights is rapidly worsening," Karaganov said, speaking at a Kremlin round-table discussion.

"If the situation continues this way in Belarus, a certain segment of the population as well as those who compete with us from abroad will undoubtedly provoke bloody events. And as you know, we are already being criticized," he said.

Putin said he would raise the issue of Russian citizens in Belarus when he met Lukashenko.