"Ploughman" Lukashenko talks Russia, energy, EU, opposition

MINSK, April 12 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus's strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, said he was in his proper post, boasted surviving Russian energy price hikes and urged civilized cooperation with Europe.

Addressing a news conference in Minsk, Lukashenko said he was ready to cooperate with the opposition, reiterated plans to build a nuclear power plant and swore to stand with Russia in the face of a common enemy.

The colorful leader, who the United States has branded "the last dictator of Europe", said he was an ordinary president, and was not seeking any involvement in Russian politics, even though the two neighbors have been working to form a Union State.

"I am not a tsar, I am a ploughman and I am in my deserved place," the 52-year-old president, who was reelected for a third term last spring, told a news conference in Minsk. "I am occupying the same post in Belarus as the Russian president in Russia."

Relations between Russia and Belarus became aggravated early this year following an energy dispute when Moscow doubled the gas price for its Western neighbor and Minsk responded by introducing duties for Russian oil transit to Europe via its territory.

Lukashenko said proudly that his country had withstood the blow of Russian gas and oil price hikes, and expected a budget surplus this year.

"The economic record in the first quarter gives reason to predict a budget surplus by the yearend," he said, adding that it had taken a third of all the gold and currency reserves to satisfy the growing demand of the population on the currency market and stabilize the situation.

Last week, Lukashenko said Belarus was looking to diversify energy supplies to reduce dependence on Russia, and started cooperation with other oil exporting nations such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Venezuela.

The Belarusian leader also told the news conference Thursday that Belarusian refineries had sufficient raw materials.

Until this year, Belarus refined Russian oil bought at discount rate and re-exported it to the West at market prices. In response to Russia's oil export duties introduced this year, Lukashenko said Moscow would have to pay transit fees.

"We will pay for what we take from Russia, but then Russia will also have to pay for Belarusian services," the president said but added that his country really needed partnership with Russia.

"Russia today is a guarantor of the independence and sovereignty of Belarus," he said.

The two former Soviet nations are building a Union State in a bid to integrate their economies and political systems, but the process has stalled over a host of issues, including the energy dispute and a tug-of-war between leaders.

Belarus was to have adopted the Russian ruble as the Union's single currency in January, but the move was postponed. Lukashenko insisted that a constitutional act be passed first, and put the blame on Russia for delaying the integration process.

"At a certain political stage, the Belarusian card was played in [Russia's] interests... But we never used these processes for any political campaigns, including presidential elections," the Belarusian president said in a poorly disguised hint at Russia's presidential elections.

Opposition, EU

The Belarusian leader said his country was prepared for dialogue with the European Union, but on a civilized basis and without any "lecturing".

"We do not ask for anything, and expect no interference in our lives either," Lukashenko said.

Western powers, including the United States, refused to recognize last year's presidential elections in Belarus calling them fraudulent and introduced travel bans on Lukashenko and other Belarusian government officials, urging them to release political prisoners and improve the country's human rights record.

Lukashenko said demands by Western countries had been dictated by the Belarusian opposition.

"Ok, let the West follow the opposition's instructions, but let it be civilized," he said.

Different reports said from 400 to 10,000 opposition supporters gathered in Minsk March 25 to celebrate the creation of the short-lived independent Belarusian Republic in 1918. The authorities ordered the dispersal of the unsanctioned meeting.

"I cannot allow an opposition group of 400 to gather in the streets of Minsk and interfere with people's everyday lives," said the president who has been credited in his homeland with maintaining relative stability in comparison with some other former Soviet republics.

Lukashenko called for cooperation with the opposition but said it was not in their interests. "They don't need it because then the West will give them no money," he said.

Nuclear power plant

Belarusian officials have said the country would start building its first $2.5-billion nuclear power plant (NPP) in 2008 and would commission the first unit by 2013-14. The project is designed to cut the country's dependence on Russian energy imports by 24%.

A deputy chairman of the National Academy of Sciences presidium, Vladimir Timoshpolsky, said in February Russia or France were most likely to become partners in the project. But talks have stumbled over a series of disagreements. Lukashenko said Belarus would not accept the "poor" terms offered by Russia despite pressure from Moscow.

"Russians are openly saying they could sever relations if we do not cooperate with them," Lukashenko said.

The plan for the NPP with a generating capacity of 2,000 megawatts is expected to take 10 years to build, and Belarusian authorities have promised to guarantee utmost safety at the plant considering the horror of the 1986 Chernobyl NPP accident.

Experts said the share of nuclear power in Belarus's energy balance could rise to 20%, and the share of natural gas could decline to 50% by 2020 if the project was implemented. By 2050, the plant could bring the share of nuclear power to 85%.

Missile shield

The Belarusian president said his country would support "an asymmetric response" to a possible U.S. missile shield in Central Europe.

The idea of the "asymmetric response" was formulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin news conference February 1.

Washington announced its plans in January to deploy elements of its missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland to counter possible attacks from Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear programs have provoked international concerns.

Lukashenko said Belarus would meet obligations to provide security of the Russia-Belarus Union State regardless of their relationship with Russia.

"If, God forbid, we had to fight for our homeland one day, we will never let tanks cross our territory into Moscow," the president said.