Belarus courts Russia amid sanctions threat

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hosted his Belarus counterpart Thursday for talks aimed at strengthening ties as the West moves to isolate Minsk over its post-election crackdown on the opposition.

The European Union said on Wednesday it would reinstate a travel ban on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko if he fails to release his jailed opponents. Washington is also exploring a range of possible sanctions.

The foreign minister of another Belarussian neighbour, Latvia, added his voice to the growing chorus of international outrage over Lukashenko's actions, saying that the authorities had to be "punished" for the wave of arrests.

Moscow, by contrast, has sought to distance itself from what it said was its neighbour's "internal affair" as it seeks to pursue joint economic projects with Minsk.

Putin's talks with his Belarussian counterpart Mikhail Myasnikovich were officially focussing on the two sides' efforts to resolve an oil supply standoff that has been dragging on for months.

But the meeting was being watched most closely for signs of Russia's future policy toward its traditional ally and both leaders committed themselves to building stronger relations as they opened the talks.

"Russia is our government's strategic partner," Myasnikovich told Putin at the start of the meeting.

He added that both sides should focus on "creating conditions that allow for the creation of joint companies, large companies and scientific production ventures" that potentially also involve outside partners.

Putin for his part noted that trade between the two continued to grow despite a recent string of disputes, adding that "we have strong potential and good development prospects."

Myasnikovich's visit comes ahead of Lukashenko's inauguration Friday after a hugely controversial vote followed by a crackdown on political opponents.

Following December 19 polls, thousands of people protested on election night in the Belarussian capital Minsk against what they perceived as unfair elections that gave incumbent Lukashenko a fourth presidential term.

The protest was followed by a violent crackdown and detention of over 600 people, including most of the candidates who stood against Lukashenko.

While the West says Lukashenko risks complete isolation, Russia is pressing ahead with its attempts to build a joint customs bloc and single economic space which will also include the ex-Soviet nation of Kazakhstan.

In recent years, Russia and Belarus have often been at loggerheads over energy prices and customs duties.

In 2010, European Union member Lithuania briefly suffered gas supply disruptions when Russian gas giant Gazprom reduced supplies to Belarus and Minsk halted transit of Russia's European-bound supplies in retaliation.

Following the most recent pricing dispute, Russia cut crude supplies to Belarus from January 1 but transit supplies to Europe continue, both countries say.

"The transit continues at full capacity, there are no problems," Igor Dyomin, spokesman for Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft, told AFP, adding that the countries were likely to resolve the issue Thursday.


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