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2020.01.28 12:27

Lukashenko accuses Moscow of pressuring Belarus into Russian merger

RFE/RL2020.01.28 12:27

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Moscow of pressuring his country to merge with Russia and he vowed he would never let it happen.

Lukashenko, speaking on January 24 to workers at a paper plant in eastern Belarus, slammed Russia, the country's main provider of cheap oil and natural gas, for exploiting Minsk's reliance on oil deliveries to force it to be "dissolved" into Russia.

"We have our own country, we're sovereign and independent. With our brains and hands, we earn what we can, we're building our own country. And we can't be a part of some other country," Lukashenko said.

"I can't betray you and dissolve Belarus, even into brotherly Russia."

"Even if I agree to that, Belarusians would eat me alive within a year," said Lukashenko, who has been president since the position was created in 1994.

"It's honorable to be the first [president of Belarus], but I sure don't want to be the last."

Belarus is heavily reliant on Russia for fuel and funding and is a key transit route for Russian energy supplies to Europe.

But Lukashenko, who has mocked the West's portrayal of him as 'Europe's last dictator' and has not faced democratic elections, has also sought to maintain some distance between Minsk and Moscow.

Belarus has been at odds with Russia over oil-transit prices and tariffs for some time against a backdrop of increasing pressure by Moscow on Lukashenko to deepen integration between the two neighbors.

The two countries failed to agree on an oil-supply contract for 2020, leading Russia to halt supplies to refineries in Belarus, although they were partially resumed on January 4.

A two-month deal on gas prices hours before a December 31 deadline struck helped the sides avoid a gas shutoff to start the year.

Moscow and Minsk signed an agreement in 1999 to form a unified state, but little progress has been made in the ensuing two decades. Belarus was a Soviet republic until winning independence in 1991.

Meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko last year failed to bring the two sides together as the Belarusian president noted he was merely seeking "equal" terms.

Belarus was hit by rare public demonstrations in December, with protesters expressing anger over the perceived secrecy of the talks and objecting to closer ties to Russia.

Read more: Belarusians protest Moscow-integration deal shrouded in secrecy

The Kremlin, in defending higher energy prices and lower subsidies for Belarus, argues that Minsk should accept greater economic integration if it wants to continue receiving energy resources at Russia's domestic prices.

Lukashenko has since vowed to find alternative oil suppliers and said on January 24 that Minsk was negotiating additional supplies with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

"Americans, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates [...] I have a brilliant relationship with them. They say they will supply as much oil as needed," Lukashenko said.

He also called for a third of the country’s oil supplies to come via Baltic states.

Earlier this month, Belarus announced a deal to import of oil from Norway via Lithuania.

Read more: Belarus calls for regular oil imports via Baltics as first shipment arrives in Lithuania

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Minsk on February 1, becoming the highest-level U.S. official to visit Belarus since diplomatic relations with the United States were frayed more than a decade ago.

He will meet with Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey to "underscore the US commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalise our bilateral relations," a State Department spokeswoman said.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has previously said that "we want to have a border with Belarus, not a very long border with Russia," adding that Lithuania is interested in Belarus maintaining as much sovereignty as possible.

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