A treaty to launch the Eurasian Economic Union spanning Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus has been signed by the countries' presidents in the Kazakh capital. The bloc will come into being next January.
Three ex-Soviet republics took the first step on Thursday to creating a trading bloc with a combined population of 170 million after years of tense negotiations. It still depends on approvals from the republics' parliaments.
Ukraine opted not to join the proposed bloc in February after an unprecedented to-and-fro wrangle with Russia over an alternative plan - aborted during unrest - to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.
At Thursday's signing in Astana, Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Eurasia bloc would enable the trio to strengthen their positions in global markets - alongside the EU, US and China.
The Eurasian deal stops short of introducing a single currency and delays the creation of a common energy market.
The treaty deepens a customs union created in 2010 and is supposed to guarantee the free transit of goods, services, capital and labor, as well as coordinated economic policy.
A compromise, says Lukashenko
Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said before the signing that he was not fully happy with the deal, but hailed it as a compromise.
The agreement was "well-balanced," said President Nursultan Nazabayev of Kazakhstan whose energy riches leave Russia with little leverage.
The union should become a "powerful incentive for modernizing our economies," said Nazabayev, adding that he saw it as a "bridge between the East and the West."
Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have said that they want to join the union later.
The Eurasian Economic Union will base its executive body in Moscow, a high court in Belarus and a top financial regulator in Kazakhstan.
The office of Ukraine's newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, said on Wednesday that he wanted to sign a landmark treaty with the EU soon after his inauguration as head of state.
Last November, Ukraine's then Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on an accord with the EU. His decision triggered protests, especially in Kyiv, that led to his ouster in February.
Putin began the drive to create the Eurasian union after asserting in 2005 that the break-up of the Soviet Union had been the "biggest geopolitical disaster" of the 20th century.
ipj/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)