Belarus wants Russia's money and its friendship

By Michael Stott and Sean Maguire

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, stung by big rises in Russian energy prices, vowed on Tuesday to recover $5 billion in losses by making Moscow pay for vital transit traffic and military cooperation.

But despite disappointment over Moscow's price rises and its foreign policy, Lukashenko said close ties with Russia remained the cornerstone of his isolated administration's policy.

The two former Soviet neighbors have long enjoyed warm relations and were negotiating a union with a common currency.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden doubling of gas prices and cut in oil subsidies at the end of last year threatened a vital prop for the Belarussian economy and prompted Minsk to strike back.

"Now that the Russian president has mentioned a transition to market relations ... we will in return ask Russia to pay in hard currency for services that Russia used to benefit from free of charge," Lukashenko told Reuters in a rare interview at the presidential offices.

The president was speaking the day after Belarus announced big rises in the amounts it charges Russia for the transit of oil across its territory to supply markets in western Europe.

More steps are likely to follow.

"These are things like transit (across Belarussian territory), military cooperation and the enclave of Kaliningrad. Belarus practically sponsored day-to-day life in that territory", Lukashenko said.

"We are preparing draft calculations which we will send to our Russian partners in exactly the same manner as they did to us," the president added.


Lukashenko sharply criticized Moscow's foreign policy, which he said asserted Russian interests in a growing list of countries around the world but took for granted loyal allies like Belarus and other former Soviet states.

"Russian policy is more and more like U.S. policy, which they never cease to criticize," he said. "There is some imperial style in their behavior."

"Russia tries to ignore the former Soviet countries based on the false assumption that they will not go away, they will remain firmly attached but that is a false assumption."

Despite criticizing Moscow's recent moves, Lukashenko said he hoped relations with Russia would improve and that "good sense will prevail".

The Belarus leader was also careful to avoid any direct criticism of Putin, describing him as a good friend and comrade who had always been sincere in his dealings with Minsk.

Responsibility for the "complete mess" in Russian foreign policy lay with senior officials who issued contradictory statements and did not coordinate decisions, he added.

It was important to remember that Belarussians and Russians were one people, he said, referring to their common ethnicity.

"This is the root of our policy and we are prepared to continue in the same way. But we will not tolerate any pressure or lies from the Russian Federation when there are attempts to have the two branches of the same people collide with each other."

Lukashenko said despite their recent dispute, Belarus still wanted to pursue the idea of a union state with Moscow, provided that it did not mean Belarus becoming part of Russia.

"Belarus will never opt for the union model proposed by Russia," he said. "Belarus will never become part of another state."

But that did not mean his country would turn its back on Moscow and woo Europe.

"My answers are not an attempt to hurt Russia or to please you in the West," Lukashenko retorted.