Irate Belarus says moving away from Russia


MINSK (AFP) - - The future of Belarus can no longer depend on Russia, President Alexander Lukashenko declared Friday, a day after talks between the once close ex-Soviet allies ended in acrimony.

Lukashenko, whose government was dubbed Europe's last dictatorship by the United States but is now courting closer ties with the European Union, said the days of Minsk "bowing down" to Moscow were over.

His extraordinary anti-Moscow tirade came a day after his talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Minsk were overshadowed by bitter disputes over Russian loans to Belarus and recent Belarussian overtures to the EU.

"It's not working out with Russia. We don't need to bow down. We don't need to whine and cry," his press service quoted Lukashenko as telling his government.

"We need to look for our happiness on a different part of the planet. I consciously say this in public. From this day on, that time has come to an end and another time has started."

Tensions were already brewing thanks to Belarus' moves to join the EU Eastern Partnership plan to foster closer ties between the EU and six ex-Soviet states, an initiative Russia regards with the greatest suspicion.

But Lukashenko's ire appeared to have been sparked by Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin who during Putin's visit said the Belarussian finances were in such a dire state it could default on its debt by the end of the year.

Kudrin also said Belarus had refused the next 500 million dollar (358 million euro) tranche of a Russian loan to Minsk because it did not want to receive the money in Russian rubles.

The president expressed outrage that while he had a "normal discussion" with Putin, Kudrin had at the same time given a briefing "whose aim was to sow panic in Belarus".

He also gave a public dressing-down to Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky for pursuing close ties with Russia.

"Sergei Sergeyevich, stop taking your ministers along this trodden path," Lukashenko said.

"Why are you sidling up to Russia, where we get kicked? Don't you understand that this is not the first time when they want to take us naked with their bare hands?"

He also expressed certainty that Kudrin's comments had been agreed in advance with Putin. The Russian prime minister late Thursday had ticked off Kudrin for his "extreme assessments".

Lukashenko -- a lanky ex-collective farm manager proud of posing on a pair of skis or ice skates -- has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people in an authoritarian fashion since 1994.

He last week launched a fulminating attack on Moscow for reneging on pacts, expressing himself in typically earthy terms. However the latest tirade appeared to show a new level of anger.

The EU had placed Lukashenko on a travel blacklist but this was lifted in October amid warming ties and the Belarussian leader in April met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

Belarus -- which borders EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland -- has been a close ally of Russia since the Soviet collapse and has close military cooperation as well as a joint customs union with its giant eastern neighbour.



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