Belarusian leader lashes out at Russia

MINSK, Belarus — In a sign of growing friction between the two ex-Soviet neighbors, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko criticized Russia Friday for cutting oil supplies, ordered his interior minister to press charges against Russia's top food safety official and firmly refused to host a Russian air base.

In a live news conference that lasted about 7½ hours, Lukashenko alleged that the latest trade restrictions imposed by Moscow had been spurred by its concern about Belarus' efforts to improve its ties with the West.

In more than two decades in power, Lukashenko has relied on economic and political support of Russia, skillfully exploiting its security concerns and casting Belarus as an indispensable ally.

The EU and the U.S. recently have rolled back the sanctions they had imposed on Belarus over Lukashenko's iron-fist rule, following relatively smoother elections and the release of political prisoners. Lukashenko voiced hope Friday that better ties with the West will boost the Belarusian economy.

At the same time, Russia-Belarus ties have soured.

Belarus has refused to accept the price Russia has charged for natural gas. Russia has estimated Belarus' debt at $550 million and responded by halving the volume of oil supplied to its western neighbor. Cheap Russian oil used by Belarus' refineries have been a major source of income for the nation of 10 million.

Lukashenko accused Russia Friday of using energy as a weapon to force Belarus into submission.

"We will do without the Russian oil," he said. "If we have independence on one scale, and oil on another, they are incomparable."

Ties also have been strained over Belarus' food exports. Russia has accused Belarus of becoming a conduit for contraband food to bypass a Russian embargo on most Western food introduced in retaliation to the U.S. and the EU sanctions on Russia over its action in Ukraine.

In response, Russia has introduced restrictions on imports of Belarusian food, citing sanitary reasons.

Lukashenko vented his anger at Russia's top food safety official, Sergei Dankvert, ordering his interior minister to press charges against him for "damaging the state."

The Kremlin responded to the outburst with indignation, with the press office saying Dankvert is doing his job. The Kremlin also listed massive loans given to Belarus and billions of dollars that it lost in taxes Belarus was exempt from paying for importing Russian oil.

Other tensions also flared up.

Russia's main domestic security agency has established controls on the border with Belarus in response to its decision to abolish visas for short-term travelers from 80 nations, including the U.S. and the EU. Until now, the neighbors had no border controls.

Lukashenko fumed at the move, describing it as "political attack."

"Russia has become concerned that Belarus will go away, that Lukashenko has turned to the West," the Belarusian leader said.

For years, Moscow has pushed Lukashenko to host a Russian air base, and he answered Friday with a categorical "No," casting it as part of the Kremlin pressure on Belarus.

"What's the purpose of such a base from the military viewpoint?" he said. "We don't need it here. The base and the planes they want to put here is a demonstration."

He argued that the base would have little meaning as the two nations already maintain close military cooperation.

In an indication of just how bad the current Russian-Belarusian spat has gone, Lukashenko assured his country that "there will be no war."

"No one will occupy us, no one will send in troops," he said. "We will protect ourselves and our independence."

___

Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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