By Ron Popeski
MINSK (Reuters) - President Alexander Lukashenko criticized the West on Tuesday for wooing the opposition in Belarus, saying his foes were outcasts who had failed in government and lived off foreign donations.
The European Union and the United States have halted dialogue and slapped visa bans on top Belarussian officials, saying Lukashenko has rigged elections and illegally imprisoned dissenters in the former Soviet republic.
But the Belarussian leader, now in his 13th year of rule, said Washington and Brussels had failed to understand his country properly.
"Middle-ranking, well-paid European officials come here, walk around the streets, meet the opposition, collect some data, come up with some criticism of the so-called dictator Lukashenko and go back home," the president said.
"You are not even co-operating with the opposition, but rather with a group of renegades who were unsuccessful as members of President Lukashenko's team," he added.
"They were all part of my team. They were all alongside me and promoted exactly the same ideology. But the portfolios they were given were considered too small so they went into opposition. And they make money out of it."
Some of Belarus's opposition politicians were members of Lukashenko's government although the president's top rival Alexander Milinkevich -- who won the European Parliament's Human Rights Prize last December -- has never served under him.
Belarus's liberal and nationalist opposition, often divided, dismisses out of hand any suggestion that it is paid from abroad for the purpose of destabilizing Belarus.
Milinkevich, one of two opposition candidates who challenged Lukashenko's re-election last year, calls for good relations with the West and Russia and development of a market economy. He is careful to avoid any suggestion of subjecting conservative Belarussians to radical changes in policy.
The European Union last November demanded that Lukashenko accept 12 conditions before dialogue could resume. These included holding free elections, releasing political prisoners and allowing freedom of expression.
Lukashenko rejected the "unacceptable" pre-conditions, saying Europe should instead learn from Belarus's policies of creating full employment for its people.
The Belarussian president accepted in the interview that he was "faced with the need to rule in a tough manner" but said this was the only way to achieve results.
He acknowledged feeling some envy toward Western leaders such as Britain's Queen Elizabeth who did not have to worry about economic problems and were not under constant pressure from abroad.
"Sometimes I get such 'enjoyment' from my job that it might be better if I were dead," he joked.
But despite his frustrations at Belarus's economic troubles and political isolation, Lukashenko, 52, expects to stay in office for some time to come.
Asked if he would run in Belarus's next presidential elections in 2011, the president replied:
"May God help me to fulfill in these four years everything I promised the people. If I do that and if my health permits and if I remain the same active, businesslike man ... I have no intention of abandoning political activity. Let me be honest about that."