Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Russia urges Belarus union

Russia's increasingly bad-tempered relationship with the West soured further yesterday when Boris Yeltsin revealed his latest ploy to foil Nato expansion - a proposal to forge ahead with a union with the wayward former Soviet republic of Belarus.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, spokesman for the pneumonia-stricken President, revealed yesterday that Mr Yeltsin had written to Belarus's leader, Alexander Lukashenko, saying both countries should now consider holding referenda over "one form or another" of unification.

Although details were lacking, Mr Yeltsin appears to be contemplating a close marriage with his Slavic neighbours; his letter mentioned establishing a shared budget, common currency and taxation laws and integrated energy systems by the end of the year, Mr Yastrzhembsky said.

It was clear the letter was intended to be seen as part of Russia's counter-offensive against Nato's proposals to expand into Eastern Europe, initially into Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

But the manoeuvre is yet another example of Russia's more hostile policy towards the West, and will stoke up the ill feeling that has recently surfaced on several other fronts - notably, over Moscow's willingness to sell arms to Cyprus, squabbles over spying, and Russian threats to impose economic sanctions against Estonia.

Russia's wooing of Belarus is certain to grate with Western leaders, who only two months ago watched on disapprovingly as Mr Lukashenko helped himself to dictatorial powers after forcing through a new constitution.

Yesterday, the Council of Europe which specialises in human rights, suspended Belarus's "special guest" status, saying the constitution failed to meet democratic standards.