MOSCOW – Russia and Belarus edged closer to integrating their economies at a virtual summit meeting on Thursday where presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko affirmed their brotherly ties in language redolent of the old Soviet Union.
Russian news agencies said the two leaders signed a package of documents on closer cooperation in a series of areas ranging from energy to defence.
The two Slav neighbours are formally part of a “union state” and have been in talks for years to move closer together, but the process has accelerated since Putin propped up Lukashenko last year when his rule was threatened by months of mass street protests.
The Belarus opposition, which accuses Lukashenko of rigging a presidential election in August 2020, said no agreements reached by him would be valid.
“In 2020 our people denied authorization for Lukashenko to sign anything on their behalf,” opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter.
Belarus is by far the junior partner in the relationship with a population of 9.5 million to Russia’s 144 million. Lukashenko has become still more beholden to Putin in the wake of the protests, which he crushed with mass arrests and heavy jail sentences.
Lukashenko said the two countries, which staged huge military exercises on the border with NATO countries in September, would strengthen their joint military grouping.
Putin said Belarus was not only a good neighbour and ally but “a truly fraternal republic, fraternal people. And we are striving to do everything to keep it that way for ever, based on the will of our countries for unity”.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, writing by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Andrew Heavens)