Kremlin and Belarus dismiss report of new Putin role

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian and Belarus officials rejected on Friday a media report that President Vladimir Putin could create a new role for himself by heading a union of Russia and ex-Soviet Belarus after he quits next year.

Such an option has been floated by media among other possible jobs for Putin, who is barred by the constitution from taking part in presidential polls next March but is keen to maintain political influence after leaving the Kremlin.

The editorially independent Ekho Moskvy radio station reported earlier on Friday that Putin would sign a union state agreement with Belarus during a visit to Minsk on December 13-14. It said Putin would head the new union state.

“There’s this general madness going on right now,” a Kremlin source said. “It’s a kind of distorted form of public debate about Putin’s political future. Nothing other than that.”

A source in the Belarussian presidential administration said he knew of no plan to agree a union pact soon. “I doubt this is true … nothing is known about anything as radical as that,” he said. “You should not pay much attention to this report.”

A source in the standing committee that organizes meetings linked to the “union state” agreed: “I have heard nothing about this. And I have very serious doubts about it.”

Belarus and Russia concluded the first of several accords on forming a post-Soviet state in 1996.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the West of crushing basic rights, has made creation of a merged state a policy priority while keeping in place many aspects of the Soviet-era command economy.

But plans for the merger remain vague, blocked by disputes over the years on how the state would be led, what to do about a common currency and, most recently, by Lukashenko’s objections to steep increases in the price of Russian energy exports.

A customs and immigration union is in effect between the two neighbors.

Boris Gryzlov, parliamentary leader of the United Russia party led by Putin in last week’s parliamentary election, also discounted the report. He said the “union state” was developing too slowly for such a move.

“We initially thought it would go ahead a bit faster,” Gryzlov told a news conference. “But as of now we haven’t agreed on powers and status of top officials.”

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