Putin praises Belarus leader ahead of election

MOSCOW, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin commended Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday for moving towards integration with Russia and made light of past sharp differences ahead of a weekend presidential election.

Putin's comments highlighted Russian desire to shore up relations with a last remaining bulwark against expanding NATO and European Union influence in ex-Soviet Eastern Europe.

Lukashenko, courted by Western powers critical of what they consider his autocratic style, is set to win a fourth term in power in Sunday's polls.

Russia has agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices for Minsk unchanged next year, a deal likely to keep his Soviet-style planned economy afloat.

"Whatever our relations with the Belarussian leadership -- and there have been sparks from time to time -- (the) ... Belarussian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia," Putin said in an annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian people.


He said that Moscow would supply 20-21 million tonnes of oil to Belarus next year, reassuring investors who had worried that without concrete numbers the energy deal could yet flounder, potentially threatening onward supply to Europe.

"His comments on oil exports to Belarus are very positive. There had been concerns that the agreement signed last week on oil export duties would not be enough, but 20-21 million tonnes in 2011 covers demand," said Ildar Davletshin, oil analyst at Renaissance Capital.

"This shows that relations between Russia and Belarus are on a positive track."

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are already members of a Moscow-led customs union and signed a macroeconomic policy coordination agreement last month, an important part of their drive to create a free trade zone in 2012.

The countries took steps to form a single political entity in 1996 and again ten years later, but the nature of the union was vague and talks were eventually scuppered by what Lukashenko called Russian demands that Belarus give up its sovereignty.

Lukashenko angered the Kremlin earlier this year with bursts of anti-Russian rhetoric, and moves to cut dependence on Moscow by improving ties with the West and appealing to countries from China to Venezuela for energy and investment.

President Dmitry Medvedev accused him of abandoning "basic human decency" in his drive to win the presidential seat again. (Editing by Ralph Boulton)

(Reporting by Moscow newsroom; Writing by Thomas Grove)


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