Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in St. Petersburg on July 18 to discuss further integration within the Russia-Belarus Union State, a grouping that has existed mainly on paper after it was established in the 1990s.
In recent months, Putin and Lukashenka have held several rounds of talks on the integration, with the latter stressing that the partnership should be equal.
Putin said at the start of the talks that Belarus was Russia's 'closest partner' and voiced hopes to 'boost integration between Moscow and Minsk' and overcome 'issues that emerge from time to time.'
Lukashenka said that the two countries should solve all the outstanding issues in their relations by December 8, when the 20th anniversary of the union will be marked.
He said after talks that he and Putin reached 'agreements in principle on several issues hindering the integration between the two countries,' including the price of Russian gas sold to Belarus.
The talks were held a week after Belarus announced that it was about to complete negotiations on borrowing $600 million from China to repay debts to Russia.
Russia has been Belarus's main lender for many years and Minsk still owes Moscow large sums of money. Belarus's economy remains largely inefficient, and its external debt increased by $3.4 billion from July 2016 to October.
In April, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Moscow was ready to give Belarus a loan, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov contradicted the statement, saying that the loan request made by Minsk in February was still under discussion.
In June, Siluanov said Moscow will lend more money to Belarus only after the two countries agree on furthering their integration.
In March, Lukashenka told reporters Russia and Belarus still need to sort out a number of problems before talking about integration, adding that 'the Russian leadership, especially the government, are not ready to go that way.'
In other public statements in recent months, Lukashenka openly accused Moscow of barring Belarusian goods from being imported into Russia and suspended Russian oil deliveries to Europe in April.
Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EES) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, regional groupings that observers say Putin uses to bolster Moscow's influence in the former Soviet Union and to counter the European Union and NATO.
Wariness about Moscow's intentions toward its neighbors has risen in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its military, political, and economic support for militants in parts of eastern Ukraine, leading to an armed conflict in which more than 13,000 people have been killed.
With reporting by BelTA and RIA Novosti
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