MOSCOW -- Russia's president put two plans on the table Wednesday for linking with neighboring Belarus, one of them outright unification within two years -- a startling turnaround from what Vladimir Putin said on the issue just two months ago.
The authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who had been pushing closer ties, denounced the plan as an attack on his nation's sovereignty.
At a break in Kremlin meetings, where Putin and Lukashenko were hashing out plans for a union, Putin unexpectedly detailed a scenario under which the two countries would swiftly become one if their citizens approved the merger in popular votes.
"In May of next year a referendum on the issue of final unification of the states could be held, then in December of 2003 elections to a unified parliament could take place, and in spring of 2004 a leader of the single state could be elected," Putin told a news conference in televised comments.
"This would be a step in the direction of creating -- in the full sense of the word -- a single country."
Lukashenko, who often waxes nostalgic about the Soviet Union and has persistently advocated a close union with Russia, reacted as Putin had hoped, said one Russian political analyst.
Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow think tank, said Putin was calling Lukashenko's bluff.
"He is saying, 'Let's unify -- and unification means that Belarus becomes part of Russia -- or let's end this demagoguery,"' Piontkovsky said.
He said Lukashenko, elected president of Belarus in 1994, has championed closer ties for years in a successful bid to gain secure favorable economic relations with Russia.
"But he never really wanted a union," Piontkovsky said. "He is not prepared to give up his position as president, dictator of a European country and become the governor of Minsk."
On Lukashenko's return to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, he termed Putin's single-state proposal "unacceptable for Belarus."
That plan called for unification of the former Soviet republics under the Russian constitution.
"We will never agree to this variant," he said in televised remarks.
Lukashenko and Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, signed the first of a series of union agreements in 1996, agreeing to boost political, economic and military ties between Russia and Belarus.
, with 10 million. Both are mostly Slavic and Orthodox Christian.
The suggestion of a single state -- with concrete dates and parts of the text of a referendum that that would be held in both countries -- was a major shift for Putin.
When he last met with Lukashenko in June, Putin said he vehemently opposed restoring something like the Soviet Union and declared that Russia did not want to be burdened by the Belarusian economy.
Putin's statement in June was interpreted as an attempt to distance himself from the autocratic Belarusian leader, who has severely repressed opposition and made himself a pariah in the West. But it also put Putin in the unenviable position of appearing to oppose closer ties with its neighbor which championed them.
As an alternative to full integration, Putin said the countries could form something like the European Union. He proposed introducing a common currency in 2004, a year earlier than previously planned. Lukashenko said ties with Russia should develop on the basis of the existing Union treaty and related agreements.