Lukashenko vows to improve ties with Russia

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday vowed to improve relations with Russia, Belarus' massive eastern neighbor, its strongest ally and a once stalwart economic supporter.

Ties between Minsk and Moscow have been strained in recent months, amid a series of disputes over Russian energy supplies - to Belarus and via Belarus to European markets. Oil supplies were disrupted in January after Belarus slapped a transit duty on Russian oil and Russia cut off supplies. Belarus eventually backed down, but said that new financial arrangements with Moscow could cost the country US$3.5 billion a year.

Lukashenko warned of new economic restrictions countrywide in response. Lukashenko said during a visit to a Minsk region town. But, he said he was prepared

he said. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than a decade, quashing dissent and opposition groups and building a Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy that has been heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy supplies. The United States and the European Union have slapped sanctions on him and other top government officials.

In recent months, Lukashenko and other Belarussian officials have toned down their often stridently bellicose rhetoric, and even called for new efforts to reconcile with the West. Lukashenko also vowed not to allow opposition parties to use the country's increasingly tenuous economic position for their own goals. he said.