Belarus Leader On 'Private' Visit To Armenia

RFE/RL -- Belarus's controversial President Aleksandr Lukashenko has arrived in Armenia on what official Yerevan described as a "private" trip that could see him cross paths with Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart and increasingly bitter critic.

Medvedev will start on Thursday a two-day state visit to Armenia that should result in the signing of a new Russian-Armenian defense agreement. Both he and Lukashenko are due to participate later this week in an informal summit of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) hosted by President Serzh Sarkisian.

Lukashenko's participation in the summit was in doubt until now because of his worsening relations with the Kremlin. Once considered Moscow's most loyal ex-Soviet ally, Belarus was locked earlier this year in a major row with Russia over gas prices and debts, which led to a cut in Russia's Europe-bound supplies flowing via Belarusian territory.

Tensions between the two states rose further late last week when the Kremlin accused Lukashenko of dishonorable and inconsistent behavior following the Belarusian strongman's claims that he had never promised to recognize Georgia's Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Also, Russian television has aired two documentaries hugely critical of Lukashenko.

A source at Yerevan's Zvartnots international airport told RFE/RL's Armenian service that Lukashenko arrived in the Armenian capital on Tuesday. Sarkisian's office did not immediately confirm this.

"The president of Belarus is paying a private visit to Yerevan before the start of the unofficial CSTO summit," Sarkisian's spokesman Armen Arzumanian told the Interfax news agency later on Thursday. Arzumanian gave no further details.

It was thus not clear whether Lukashenko, who vacationed at an Armenian ski resort in 2009, could meet Medvedev ahead of the CSTO summit. Russian media earlier quoted Medvedev as saying that he has no intention to hold talks with Lukashenko in Yerevan.

According to the Regnum news agency, two Armenian members of an inter-parliamentary commission on Armenian-Belarusian cooperation hinted on Wednesday at the possibility of such talks. One of them, Hovannes Markarian, said Yerevan could mediate in a dialogue between Moscow and Minsk.


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