Putin’s Visit Signals Upswing in Belarus Ties

During his official visit to Minsk on Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Belarus a new loan and pledged his authoritarian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, help in resisting EU pressure.

Russia has had problematic relations with Belarus. A chill developed in 2008 when Lukashenko refused to recognize the independence of former Georgian republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That was followed by a series of contractual price rows over gas and milk, as well as transit prices for Russian good travelling to the EU through Belarus.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure, Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, several times hinted that Putin remained the real Russian leader. As a result, Russia refused to support to Lukashenko at the country’s 2010 presidential polls. Later in 2010, Medvedev accused the Belarusian president of “hysterical” anti-Russian rhetoric.

However, Putin’s visit has brought renewed warmth to the bilateral relations. He met with Lukashenko at the Belarusian president’s residence in a forest outside Minsk. After the talks, the Russian leader announced that EurAsEc, a regional economic grouping of ex-Soviet republics led by Russia, has approved the disbursement of the third tranche of a bailout loan to Belarus, to help the Eastern European country tackle its currency problems.

Putin also added that talks would start on a fourth tranche.

On his visit to Belarus, the Russian president was accompanied by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. Kiriyenko said Russia and Belarus have initialled a contract on the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus. The $10-billion plant will be built by Russia’s Atomstroyexport company, a Rosatom subsidiary. The plant will consist of two reactors with a capacity of 1,200 MW each and will boost the capacity of the entire Belarusian energy system to 8,000 MW. The first unit of the power station is due to be ready in 2017, with the second in 2018.

With the European Union ratcheting up sanctions on Minsk for human rights violations, Putin and Lukashenko issued a joint statement saying: “Russia and Belarus will coordinate efforts to counter attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Union State [between Russia and Belarus] and apply pressure through the introduction of restrictive measures or sanctions.”

After Lukashenko won a fourth term in office in 2010 and cracked down on the opposition, the European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus, including travel bans on him and other senior officials.

In February 2011, the European Union tightened sanctions against Belarus and withdrew ambassadors from Minsk over human rights violations. Relations improved after jailed opposition leader Andrei Sannikov was released.

On June 1, Putin is due to travel to Germany and then France.


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