Lukashenko lauds successes of decade-old Russia-Belarus union

The social equality of Russian and Belarusian citizens is a major achievement of the union state, the president of Belarus said on Tuesday in a letter of congratulations on the alliance's 10th anniversary.

"It will not be an exaggeration to say that a remarkable event took place 10 years ago reflecting the natural aspirations of Belarusians and Russians to a union based on historical ties, spiritual and cultural unity and close economic ties," Alexander Lukashenko said.

The two former Soviet neighbors have been trying to build a union since 1996, but have deviated from the original idea of political integration towards socio-economic cooperation.

A series of agreements signed during President Boris Yeltsin's second term culminated in the December 8, 1999, treaty to create the Union State, but Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin showed little enthusiasm for the project's grander goals.

Lukashenko said Russia and Belarus had been successfully strengthening defense and security and formulating common positions on international issues, and had achieved high levels of mutually advantageous cooperation in production and research over the past decade.

The Belarusian leader, who will pay a working visit to Moscow on Thursday, has been moving his country closer to Europe as relations with the EU have thawed over the past year. Last week he reiterated his commitment to boosting ties with Russia, but also pledged to improve relations with Western Europe.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Belarusian capital late last month, when he and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a package of deals to create a customs union with common tariffs, paving the way for a single economic space.

Medvedev also pledged in November a 30-40% discount on natural gas for Belarus in 2010, while Prime Minister Putin said last week that a cut in energy prices for Belarus should coincide with Minsk's integration into the Union State with Russia.

In his annual phone-in on Thursday, Putin referred to Russia's "substantial" assistance to its neighbor, which received a $1.5 billion Russian loan in 2007, borrowed $1 billion in 2008, and obtained two loans worth $500 million and $650 million in 2009, the latter from Russian energy giant Gazprom.

MINSK, December 8 (RIA Novosti)


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