SELIGER LAKE, Russia (AP) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced support Monday for Russia to merge with its western neighbor Belarus.
Belarus has been an independent state since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. But the country is still regarded as the most "Soviet" of all former republics. President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus for 17 years and has a tight grip over the country's economy and political life.
As Russia's prime minister, Putin is not supposed to shape the country's foreign policy. President Dmitry Medvedev is. But Putin, who served as Russia's president from 2000 to 2008, and may run for that office again next year, has repeatedly overstepped the bounds of his No. 2 post as prime minister since he took it in 2008.
Putin's remarks were a response to a question from a young Belarusian who wondered whether Russia and Belarus could merge into "one state like it was in the Soviet times." Putin said the return to Soviet-style unity is "possible, desirable and wholly dependent on the will of the Belarusian people."
Belarusian officials had no immediate commented on Putin's statement.
Russia and Belarus already have open borders, with their citizens able to travel freely and seek employment in either country. But Belarus' Lukashenko has been a fierce defender of his country's sovereignty.
The country's president used to justify his totalitarian rule by a relative economic stability. But that stability shattered earlier this year when Belarus found itself mired in its worst financial crisis since independence, which has put Lukashenko under pressure to sell key parts of its industry to Russians in exchange for a bailout. He has so far managed to resist it, while dissent in the country keeps growing.
Much blame is directed at the president, referred to by U.S. officials as Europe's last dictator, for increasing public sector salaries in pre-election populism last year when the country could ill-afford it.
The government has recently banned the rallies, which feature novel forms of non-vocal protest, and used brutal force in eliminating resistance.
Asked about his attitude toward totalitarianism, Putin decried it as "an inefficient way to govern," saying that "a totalitarian rule annihilates freedom and personal creativity."
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow.