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President says Belarus will not be incorporated into Russia

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The president of Belarus on Friday strongly rejected the possibility that Russia could incorporate his nation, as the two former Soviet republics discuss how to more closely integrate their economies, including a possible joint currency.

Speaking at a news conference that lasted more than eight hours with a single 15-minute break, President Alexander Lukashenko said the two neighbors are discussing ways to further deepen their close ties, but that Russia's absorption of Belarus isn't on the agenda.

"Belarusians want to be with Russia, but they want to live in their own apartment," Lukashenko said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the countries, which already have close economic, military and political ties, should integrate even more closely so that Belarus can benefit from lower prices for Russian natural gas.

The 64-year-old Lukashenko, who has led the ex-Soviet nation of 10 million people for nearly a quarter century, recently criticized increases in the price of Russian energy supplies as part of Moscow's efforts to persuade his country to abandon its independence.

During his leadership, Belarus has relied on Russia's loans and cheap energy to keep its Soviet-style economy afloat. In Belarus, many have voiced fears that the Kremlin could be hatching plans to incorporate the country. Such concerns have been fueled by Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and its support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenko acknowledged Friday that the two countries should deepen their integration and said he would accept a plan to have a joint currency. He noted that it shouldn't be the Russian ruble, but a new shared currency. He added that he would agree to have the single printing center in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The statement lacked specifics and didn't seem to mark a breakthrough in the joint currency discussions that have been going on for years with little progress.

Russia and Belarus signed a union treaty in 1997 that envisaged close ties but stopped short of forming a single state. There is speculation that the Kremlin may now contemplate a full merger as a way of keeping Putin in power beyond the constitutional limit when his current six-year term expires in 2024.

During Friday's news conference, the Belarusian leader said he plans to run for a sixth straight five-year term in 2020.

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