President Vladimir Putin may be about to unveil a political bombshell: a full-scale union between Russia and its smaller Slavic neighbor Belarus.
It's a plan that not only would expand Russia's territory and national prestige; it could also give Mr. Putin, required to step down when his second term ends in March, a new lease on power by producing a fresh Constitution.
Citing Kremlin sources, the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station reported Friday that Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will sign a union treaty during Putin's two-day visit to Minsk this week.
A Kremlin spokesman said the report came "from the realm of speculative fantasies," though he did not deny that the long-debated Russia-Belarus union might be on the verge of realization.
The purported deal, to be endorsed by popular referendum, would involve a full merger of the two countries, including common currency, legal system, armed forces, and state symbols. Putin would be likely to become the new superstate's provisional leader and Mr. Lukashenko its speaker of parliament, the station said.
Belarus's beleaguered opposition called on Belarussians to the streets this week to protest "imminent annexation" by Russia.
"It has become clear that Russia will use economic levers [such as high energy prices] to annex Belarus, or at least compel it to join a 'union state,' " Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the Belarussian Popular Front coalition, said in a statement.
Belarus is Russia's closest ally among ex-Soviet states and has long been dependent on Moscow for energy supplies, security assistance, and economic subsidies. The two countries have had a partial union since 1996, when Lukashenko championed the idea. Since the youthful and popular Putin took power from a weak Boris Yeltsin, however, Lukashenko has cooled to the idea.
But Russia has racheted up the pressure on Lukashenko. Last week the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom announced a new round of hikes that will triple the price Belarus paid barely a year ago. "As Lukashenko searches for ways to survive politically, it may be that cutting a deal with Putin is starting to look like his best option," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Moscow has been seething with speculation about Putin's endgame. As the March presidential elections approach, Putin has not been acting like a politician on the eve of retirement. He personally led the electoral ticket of the United Russia party, which won a commanding 64 percent majority in parliamentary elections last week – a victory which he said gives him a "moral mandate" to continue exercising power.
But one by one, theories about how he will do that have collapsed. Putin did not resign before the presidential election campaign officially began, which could have circumvented the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms and enabled him to run again in March. Last week he declined the State Duma seat he had won, ruling out scenarios that saw him as head of a parliamentary majority.
"One of Putin's main characteristics is to never disclose his plan until the last moment," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign policy journal. "He allows all sorts of misimpressions to thrive, while he bides his time and decides what he wants to do."
Experts say a Russia-Belarus union might provide the perfect solution for Putin. "This Russia-Belarus union looks like a very timely plan, one that's closely connected with all the other things that are going on, politically, right now," says Mr. Petrov. A referendum could be held as early as March, in both countries, to approve the Constitution of the new state, followed by elections for its key leaders, says Petrov.
Surveys show that people in mainly Russian-speaking Belarus remain deeply nostalgic for the former Soviet Union and strongly back the idea of reunification with Russia. With a two-thirds majority in the Duma, Putin would be unlikely to face impediments at home.
"It's a very serious project. Reunification is something vast majorities in both Russia and Belarus want," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. He says the final details are yet to be worked out, but the basic plan under discussion would involve giant, oil-rich Russia absorbing tiny, economically dependent Belarus in much the way China took over the former British colony of Hong Kong a decade ago. "There are powerful economic and security reasons to go ahead," says Markov.