World News

Belarus leader may snub Moscow security meet

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko may snub an ex-Soviet security pact meeting in Moscow hosted by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev over a milk export row, Belarus’ Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (L) talks with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in the Kremlin in Moscow in this February 3, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Pool/Files

Relations between the ex-Soviet allies have been strained by Belarus’ refusal to recognise Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Russia has banned on technical grounds the import of 1,200 types of milk product from Belarus, which earns billions of dollars from its dairy exports, and last year had about 4 percent of the Russian market.

Lukashenko was due in Moscow on Sunday for the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (ODKB) meeting, which unites Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

“Belarus is seriously concerned over the introduction by one of the ODKB countries of discriminatory trade restrictions violating international agreements,” the ministry said.

“Due to continuing uncertainty over this issue, the Belarussian side has not yet taken a final decision with regards to the participation of the official delegation ... in the ODKB council meeting.”

ODKB countries control a key land route from Europe to Afghanistan and the organisation is often billed as a counterweight to NATO. The Moscow meeting is due to discuss the creation of a joint rapid reaction force.

Interfax news agency quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry source as saying Belarus’ attempt to link the milk row with the ODKB meeting was “inappropriate”.

On Saturday, Lukashenko asked officials to look into reintroducing controls at the border with Russia. The two countries have been striving for years to form a union state.

A row with Russia over gas supplies in 2006 was a prelude to Lukashenko, long accused in the West of human rights violations and rigging his re-election, taking steps towards a reconciliation with the European Union.

Russia, the world’s No.2 oil exporter and holder of the third largest gold and forex reserves, has been trying to use the economic crisis to tighten its grip on less wealthy neighbours, largely dependent on trade with Russia.

Russia delayed giving Belarus a $500 million loan on grounds that Belarus, whose manufacturing industry has been hit hard by the crisis, could be insolvent by the end of the year, prompting an angry response from Lukashenko.

However, Russia has said it will form a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan next year and ditch its unilateral bid to join the World Trade Organisation in favour of a joint bid.