Putin hosts Belarus leader for further economic talks

Putin hosts Belarus leader for further economic talks
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors to Russia in Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the leader of Belarus Friday for another round of difficult talks on closer integration amid mounting Russian economic pressure on its ex-Soviet ally.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin of flouting its obligations on energy supplies while trying to strong-arm him into a closer alliance.

The two leaders smiled broadly and chatted about the weather but didn’t make any remarks on substance as they sat down for talks at Putin’s residence in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Kremlin has argued that Belarus, which relies on Russia for most of its energy needs, should accept greater economic integration if it wants to continue receiving Russian resources at subsidized prices.

Putin and Lukashenko met twice in December but failed to resolve their differences, resulting in Russia cutting oil supplies to Belarus at the start of this year.

The transit shipments of Russian crude to Europe via Belarus have continued unimpeded, but the Belarusian oil refineries have been reduced to a minimum capacity, depriving the country of a major source of income. In the past, Belarus has cashed in on exports of petroleum products made from cheap Russian oil.

Belarusian officials said the country lost $330 million last year due to higher Russian oil prices.

Lukashenko is looking for alternative supply sources, and last month Belarus purchased a shipment of crude from Norway. On Tuesday, Belarusian officials discussed possible future oil supplies via neighboring Lithuania.

Observers noted, however, that Belarus’ Soviet-style economy depends on cheap Russian energy and can’t afford oil imports at world prices.

Earlier this week, Lukashenko boasted about warming ties with the United States in an apparent bid to win concessions from Russia. He claimed his weekend meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vexed Moscow.

Pompeo, the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Belarus in 26 years, said the U.S. could provide Belarus with 100% of its oil and gas needs and noted that it wants to help Belarus uphold its sovereignty.

Lukashenko, who has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” in the past, has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter century, stifling dissent and extending his rule through votes the West has dismissed as flawed. But he has increasingly reached out to the West in recent years amid tensions with Russia, and the U.S. and the European Union have lifted some of their sanctions as Belarus freed political prisoners.

Lukashenko has bristled at the Kremlin pressure, charging that some Russian officials want to push Belarus into surrendering its sovereignty.

Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1997 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of forming a single nation.

Many in Belarus fear that Putin, who has been in power for two decades, could be seeking a merger with Belarus as a way to continue calling the shots as head of the Russia-Belarus union state after his current Russian presidential term expires in 2024.