Lukashenka Wants Belarus To Go Its Own Way

It's rare for Belarus's authoritarian president to speak to Western media. But recently Alyaksandr Lukashenka has opened up.

Lukashenka, a popular figure nowhere but home, has lately found himself in an especially lonely place -- wedged between an uncompromising Russia and an unsympathetic Europe.

But in a February 6 interview with Reuters, an undaunted Lukashenka emphasized that his country will go its own way.

Belarus, he said, will survive Russia's recent doubling of gas prices -- but ties between the countries can never be the same.

"Our economy can withstand this," Lukashenka said. "Psychologically, if you will, what is most disconcerting for us is the position of our ally. Most of all we are upset that it was an ally country that used such barbaric methods -- a country that is closest to us and home to a people closest to us.

"Practically The Same"

'Belarusians and Russians are practically the same people. They are the same people. It's hard to distinguish between them."

In turn, Lukashenka said, Belarus would also apply market principles to Russia, charging for Russian troops stationed on its soil and for goods transiting the country.

The union state with Russia was still on the agenda, he said. But relations from now on would be on Belarus's terms.

"Russia is trying to disregard the former Soviet republics, thinking they won't go anywhere and they will remain hooked to the Russian Federation," Lukashenka said. "This is a misguided position."

Will Minsk Look West?

Since a New Year's energy spat between Moscow and Minsk briefly shut down oil shipments to the European Union, Lukashenka has made a number of comments calling for a new dialogue with the EU.

In a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," the Belarusian president described himself as a "willing pupil" ready to learn from the West.

In his Reuters interview, however, he took a slightly eager tone, saying, as a result of the oil crisis, "Europe has suddenly turned its attention to Belarus and understood that without Belarus it is difficult to ensure Europe's energy security. It has turned out that Belarus also wants to be a sovereign and independent country, and this came as a surprise to the European Union."

Brussels Still Skeptical

The EU will take some convincing before it resumes any ties with Belarus.

Brussels has accused Lukashenka of falsifying elections and clamping down on independent media and has placed a visa ban and asset freeze on the country's top officials.

In November 2006, the EU demanded that Lukashenka accept 12 conditions before dialogue between Minsk and Brussels could be restored. The most pressing of those was the release of political prisoners.

But Lukashenka, in the Reuters interview, did not give any indication that Belarus was prepared for political reform. Instead, he chastised the West for working with Belarus's political opposition.