Lukashenko: China is "Belarus' leading international ally"

Minsk (dpa) - Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko in a speech to parliament on Tuesday singled out China rather than Russia as Belarus' "leading international ally."

Lukashenko's remarks marked a new low point in relations between Moscow and Belarus since the countries fell out in January over the price of Russian fuel deliveries.

"We have done extremely well developing economic relations with China," Lukashenko said. "This is the route that we should take."

Russia is by far Belarus' largest trading partner, in recent years accounting for between 50 and 60 per cent of Belarusian imports and exports.

Trade between China and Belarus skyrocketed in 2006, Lukashenko claimed, going from "almost nothing" to more than 1 billion dollars a year.

The exchange was "not just in simple cheap items, but also in the fields of advanced technologies and investment," he added.

If the trend continues, Chinese business could according to Lukashneko invest over two billion dollars in the Belarusian economy by the end of 2007 - a figure roughly equivalent to all foreign investment in Belarus since its 1991 independence.

Lukashenko cited growing trade with China as evidence of success of his country's new "multi-vector" policy.

Stung by Russian energy price hikes ending years of subsidies at the beginning of 2007, Lukashenko has searched hard for alternate sources of fuel and trade for Belarus.

Lukashenko's government is isolated from most wealthy nations, due to the Soviet-style ruling tactics of the Belarusian state. Travel by the former collective farm boss and most senior Belarusian officials to the United States and European Union is banned.

"We need and indeed already today we have alternatives," a defiant Lukashneko said. "We ask Europe and the US for nothing."

Recent countries touted by Lukashenko as important trading partners in Belarus' economic future include Iran, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan; all of which in the past have had little to do economically with Belarus, but nonetheless have yet to make Lukashenko a pariah.

Though touted by Lukashenko as the solution to his country's isolation, trade between Belarus and even non-aligned nations is inhibited by the generally low quality of goods produced by Belarus' centrally-run economy.