Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Belarus' leader late Thursday, starting a visit that was closely watched for signs the two ex-Soviet neighbors were advancing toward a merger.
The creation of a single state could allow Putin to become the leader of a land even larger than Russia after he steps down from the presidency next May. However, the Kremlin moved to quash talk of such a possibility, denying that Putin's talks in Belarus will touch upon a draft constitution that would describe a unified country's government.
President Alexander Lukashenko's office said last week that the document would be part of the agenda, and the secretary of the existing Russia-Belarus executive body said that it would likely be discussed.
For the second straight day Thursday, Belarusian authorities dispersed demonstrators opposed to a merger. About 15 young people protested briefly in Minsk, with signs saying "Putin go home" and "No union with Russia," before police detained them and packed them into a bus.
Many politicians and observers in both nations said Putin's unusual visit to Belarus signaled his renewed interest in the long-debated merger plan.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Putin tries to speed up a union with Belarus ... to become the president of the unified state," Russian Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said.
Putin, who has indicated he will seek to retain significant influence after term limits force him from the Kremlin, does have at least one other option.
On Monday, he said he supported his protege Dmitry Medvedev to become Russia's next president. That made Medvedev the overwhelming favorite in the March 2 vote and he, in turn, asked Putin on Tuesday to be his prime minister, although Putin has not yet accepted.
The creation of a single state could give Putin an alternative to the Russian prime minister's post, potentially creating a job that would place him above national presidents.
A merger of the two predominantly Slavic, Russian Orthodox countries would be the first of any two ex-Soviet republics since the Soviet Union split up in 1991, and would make many Russians proud. But it would deepen Western concerns about an increasingly assertive Russia.
The Kremlin said a draft constitution of a union was not on the agenda of Friday's session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State. After his arrival late Thursday, Putin dined privately with Lukashenko.
Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio last week quoted unidentified members of the Lukashenko administration as saying Moscow and Minsk had struck a deal under which Putin would become president of a Russia-Belarus union while Lukashenko would be speaker of its parliament.
Pavel Borodin, secretary of the existing Russian-Belarusian executive body, said Wednesday that drafts of the constitution being considered would give the president of a new unified country the power to rule over the current national governments.
He said the new constitution, once agreed upon by governments, would be subject to approval by each nation's parliament and put to voters in national referendums.
Some analysts doubt a merger deal could be reached, saying Lukashenko is unlikely to cede power.
"The two nations have opposite interests," Minsk-based independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky told The Associated Press. "Moscow wants to expand its presence in Belarus, while Minsk wants to get economic assistance while maintaining full sovereignty."
Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but efforts to achieve a full merger have foundered.