Interview - Belarus president says West rejected better ties

By Steve Gutterman

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko lashed out at the West in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, saying he has received little in return for his efforts to improve relations with the European Union and United States.

"I cannot even talk about all the steps that I have taken that are very sensitive for us -- and the West cast me aside," said Lukashenko, who is under Western pressure for political reform and broader civil rights in Belarus.

"I have come to understand that there is a huge number of irresponsible politicians in the West," he said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Lukashenko accused long-time ally Russia of tightening the screws on Belarus by scrapping preferential oil pricing, but stopped short of threatening to torpedo a nascent customs union over the dispute.

He criticised both Moscow and the West for engaging with the leaders who took power in Kyrgyzstan after a violent upheaval last month, and vowed not to hand over ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has taken refuge in Belarus.

"Russia and the West create a terrible precedent when they support an illegal government that came to power through bloodshed," he said. He warned that any appeal for Bakiyev's extradition would be "hopeless".

Moscow's embrace of Kyrgyzstan's interim government has sent a potentially alarming signal to Lukashenko, who has relied on Russian economic and political support during his 16-year rule over his landlocked, energy-poor nation of nearly 10 million.

Long shunned by the EU and the United States, which accuse him of maintaining power through unfair elections and the harsh suppression of dissent, Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West as Moscow has decreased its backing.

But he expressed deep dissatisfaction with the West during the interview and made clear Western leaders should not demand more political reforms unless they are prepared to reciprocate by lifting sanctions and showing more respect.


"There have been some good moves, but this is a process of unrealised hopes, both in the West and on our side. We expected more from the West," he said. "What we will not tolerate is for somebody to order us around -- nobody can shove us from behind."

"We will take exactly as many steps as the West is ready to take," Lukashenko said.

After his government released inmates seen in the West as political prisoners and made some concessions on European demands for electoral reforms, the EU suspended travel sanctions it imposed after Lukashenko's re-election in a 2006 vote that was not recognised by the West.

But it has not lifted the sanctions altogether or returned preferential trade conditions also denied as punishment.

Lukashenko said Western governments will not be satisfied until he is no longer president. But he strongly suggested he would seek another term in a presidential vote early next year.

He said he had not decided whether to run, but added the Belarusian people expect him to do so and that "there are no factors now that would force me to refuse to participate".

"The West doesn't like our course and doesn't like the current president -- that's all there is to it. Let's be honest," Lukashenko said. "But the president is elected by the people, not by the West. The sooner the West understands that, the faster we will build normal relations."

Amid disputes with the Kremlin over oil supplies and Kyrgyzstan, Lukashenko said that "maybe in Russia somebody would like to see a different president here."

Lukashenko, who pushed though legislation in 2004 that removed presidential term limits, warned both East and West not to hope for a repeat of the Kyrgyz scenario in Belarus.

"No matter how the situation develops here, nobody will have the slightest possibility of ousting those in power here."

Lukashenko indicated that Russia's insistence on charging Belarus duties on oil could jeopardise the customs union it is developing with Belarus and Kazakhstan -- the most concrete step by ex-Soviet republics to create a strong economic alliance. But he spoke cautiously and stopped short of a threat to withdraw.

"This union will hardly have prospects if we veer away from our agreements or violate fundamental principles. But I think that everything lies ahead of us. We have just started creating this union," he said.

"To leave it without even entering it would hardly be right. Let's see how the atmosphere develops. I am certain that if everything is fine others will join us, too."

(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; editing by Maria Golovnina)


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