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Belarus leader says most oppose unification with Russia

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Minsk (AFP)

Belarus strongmanAlexander Lukashenko said Friday that 98 percent of citizens of the ex-Soviet country would oppose unification with Russia, as speculation grows that the Kremlin is pressuring Minsk into closer integration.

During a marathon meeting with journalists and analysts, Lukashenko said if Belarusians were asked in a referendum, "98 percent would vote against the unification of the two countries -- or what many in Russia see as Belarus becoming part of Russia."

"Today Belarusians want to be together with Russia but want to live in their own home," the veteran president said.

Russia is Belarus's closest ally and the two have formed a nominal "union" with close trade and military cooperation while arguing over sticking points such as energy prices and import duties.

Speculation has been swirling in recent months that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pressuring neighbouring Belarus into closer integration with a view toward establishing a unified state.

Such a move could possibly extend Putin's time in power when his fourth presidential term ends in 2024 by making him the head of a new "unified" state including Belarus.

Moscow has dismissed such suggestions.

Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from neighbouring Ukraine and support for separatists in the east of that country sent shivers through Belarus.

Lukashenko -- who met with Putin for three days of talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi last month -- said the two leaders discussed the countries' union and both took a cautious approach.

"We firmly agreed that today we must not put on too much pressure or take steps that would do any harm," he added.

- Common currency? -

In December, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow was ready for closer integration with Belarus -- including a common currency, shared customs services and courts -- in line with a 1999 agreement to create a "union state."

Moscow denies that outright unification is on the cards, however.

Talk of pressure from Russia intensified after Moscow recently announced a tax change an oil exports that could cost Belarus more than $10 billion by 2024.

Lukashenko said he was open to adopting a common currency with Moscow as long as it would not be the Russian ruble.

The Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that working towards a common currency was part of an agreement between the neighbours and the two leaders agreed in Sochi on the "necessity" of continuing the talks.

There were no "concrete" details on the common currency yet, Peskov said, but "the topic could and should be discussed if we are moving towards the path of union construction."

Lukashenko also threatened to buy oil from other countries if Russia did not compensate Belarus for the tax change.

"Does Russia need this?", he asked, adding "We will survive."

Addressing a Russian journalist, Lukashenko demanded that Moscow stop calling Belarusians "freeloaders."

"When people, especially me, hear this, I don't want any union," he said testily.

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