Belarus leader lashes out at Moscow, seeks US ties

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Belarus's outspoken leader Alexander Lukashenko, long at odds with the West but lately quarreling with Moscow, said on Friday he wanted better ties with the United States and berated his estranged ally Russia.

Lukashenko, criticised in the West over human rights, 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 as Moscow has cut economic subsidies to its Slav neighbour.

"We can, and we would like, to normalise relations with America, and we do not hide this," state media quoted 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. I believe these issues can be resolved."

The United States and European Union have criticised Belarus for not holding free or fair elections since Lukashenko came to power in 1994. The veteran leader, last re-elected in 2006, plans to seek another term in the next six months.

Lukashenko, who has released inmates considered by the West to have been political prisoners and taken other steps to appease the EU and Washington, accused Russia of putting pressure on him ahead of the election.

"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."

Lukashenko has so far declined to recognise the independence of two pro-Russian separatist regions in Georgia, which Moscow recognised after a five-day war with Georgia in August 2008.

In Friday's remarks, he blamed Moscow for failing provide incentives to Belarus that would offset any negative consequences of recognising the breakaway Georgian regions.

Relations between Russia and Belarus soured further in April when Belarus gave refuge to former Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was criticised by Moscow. In June, Minsk threatened to cut Russian gas transit to Europe in a pricing dispute.

Lukashenko also said Moscow could lose a lucrative contract to build Belarus's first nuclear power plant: "We are not writing off other investors. In the near time we will decide who will build our nuclear plant."

Building its own 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 next-door Ukraine blew up in 1986. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Peter Graff)


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