Venezuela's Chavez wants 'union' with ally Belarus

MINSK: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez yesterday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union. Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future. "We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarusian p residency.

This will not be a union of Soviet or socialist republics," he said in reference to the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). "It will be free republics with their own systems, but united in a union." The maverick South American leader did not give further details about his vision, saying only that he and Lukashenko would discuss their "strategic cooperation" in Caracas soon.

Chavez was later due to depart for Russia to cement another relationship that has grown in importance over the last years, particularly in defense. Belarus and Venezuela though on different continents are joined by a shared suspicion of the West, with Chavez a bete noire of the United States and Lukashenko once condemned as "Europe's last dictator" by Washington.

Chavez was making his fourth visit to Belarus since 2006. The Venezuelan leader also visited his close ally Iran during his foreign tour, as well as Algeria and Syria. "Just a few years ago we did not know each other," reflected Lukashenko. "But today we have millions of dollars in trade. If we implement what we are planning, it will be billions of dollars.

Lukashenko also painted a rosy picture of his upcoming visit to Venezuela, which Chavez said could take place in November or December. "We will travel across all Venezuela, starting from the sea and the mountains; we will look at oil wells and gold mines, gas fields and quite possibly we will dream up something new in our relations," said Lukashenko.

A day earlier, Chavez had lived up to his flamboyant reputation by telling Lukashenko he brought "greetings from the axis of evil, from the leaders of Cuba, Algeria, Libya and Turkmenistan!" None of the mentioned countries actually figured in the original axis of evil, a term used in 2002 by then-US president George W Bush to describe Iran, Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.

Chavez had earlier in the week upstaged established film stars in Venice as he attended the screening of veteran US director Oliver Stone's documentary "South of the Border," which looks at the outspoken Venezuelan leader's role in bottom-up change sweeping South America.

Belarus, a long-time outcast in the West, has in recent months sought closer ties with Europe and the United States, to the irritation of its long-time ally Russia. Chavez, who was scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today, could sign deals to buy Russian arms and military vehicles during his visit to Moscow.

A top Kremlin official said 10 agreements would be signed during the visit, including a deal on military cooperation in training of troops and exchange programs, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. Sergei Prikhodko, the top Kremlin foreign policy adviser, did not rule out that Venezuela could be given a credit to buy Russian arms but insisted that none of the deals to be signed would involve weapons sales.

Some reports had said Venezuela could buy three diesel-powered Kilo-class submarines, BMP-3 armored vehicles and T-72 battle tanks, 10 Mi-28 helicopters and "several" land-based anti-ship missiles. In recent years Venezuela has signed over four billion dollars' worth of arms contracts with Russia, and last November its navy held joint exercises with Russian warships in the Caribbean, traditionally seen as a US domain. - AFP



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