Miffed at Russia, Belarus President Seeks Better Ties With West


MINSK, Belarus (Reuters) - The outspoken president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has long been at odds with the West but lately has been quarreling with Moscow, said Friday that he wanted better ties with the United States and he berated his estranged ally Russia.

Mr. Lukashenko, criticized in the West over human rights abuses, had once pledged to build a "union state" that would combine Belarus with Russia. But his relations with Moscow are now at a new low after Russia cut economic subsidies to Belarus.

"We can, and we would like to, normalize relations with America, and we do not hide this," the state media quoted Mr. Lukashenko as saying during a visit to Belarus's central Minsk region.

"We have many themes for negotiations, we have proposals from our side as well as proposals from the American side," he said, according to the state media. "I believe these issues can be resolved."

The United States and the European Union have criticized Belarus for failing to hold free or fair elections since Mr. Lukashenko came to power in 1994. He was last re-elected in 2006, and he plans to seek another term in the next six months.

Mr. Lukashenko has released prisoners considered by the West to have been political prisoners, and he has taken other steps to appease the European Union and the United States. He accused Russia of putting pressure on him before the next presidential election in Belarus.

"America stays on its position, but Russia has sharply changed its stance, trying to bring the president of Belarus to heel before the well-known political events," he said. "But you have known me for ages - it is impossible to bend me, and trying to do so is useless."

Mr. Lukashenko has so far declined to recognize the independence of two pro-Russian breakaway regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognized after a five-day war with Georgia in August 2008.

On Friday, he blamed Moscow for failing to provide incentives to Belarus that would offset any negative consequences for Belarus of recognizing the two separatist regions.

Relations between Russia and Belarus soured further in April when Belarus gave refuge to the former Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, who was criticized by Moscow. Mr. Bakiyev was ousted after bloody antigovernment riots. Mr. Lukashenko's decision appeared, in particular, to be a swipe at Russia, which had appeared to play at least a partial role in paving the way for Mr. Bakiyev's ouster.

In June, Belarus threatened to cut Russian gas transit to Europe in a pricing dispute.

Mr. Lukashenko also said that Russia could lose a lucrative contract to build the first nuclear power plant in Belarus. "We are not writing off other investors," he said. "In the near time we will decide who will build our nuclear plant."

Building a nuclear power plant has been on Belarus's agenda since 2007 after sharp price increases for Russian energy. A third of Belarus was contaminated with radiation when a reactor at Chernobyl in neighboring Ukraine blew up in 1986.


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