Eyeing possible Polish U.S. base, Belarus says no Russian base, for now

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belarus has no plans to allow Russia to base troops on its territory, its foreign minister said on Thursday, but could review that if, for example, Poland were to host a permanent U.S. military presence.

Belarussian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel in Minsk, Belarus November 17, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Vladimir Makei, in Brussels to press a case for expanded cooperation with the European Union, told reporters that Minsk wanted to reduce tensions in the region and maintain good relations with the West and with its former rulers in Moscow. It felt a U.S. base in Poland would increase regional “mistrust”.

Asked if Polish proposals to host a U.S. base amid fears of Russian aggression could prompt Belarus to revise its rejection of any Russian base, Makei said: “I think there will be some reaction to this intention to deploy a new military air base.

“Nothing is impossible ... As of today ... we are not going to deploy new foreign military bases on the territory of Belarus because we would like to contribute to security in our region and we don’t want to be a troublemaker.

“So we are not going to deploy right now new military bases. But looking to the future we should take into account the future steps which will be taken by our neighbors.”

Makei stressed that Belarus, under Alexander Lukashenko who has been president of the former Soviet republic for 24 years, wanted to keep open “military dialogue” in the region, including maintaining “hot lines” to control tensions.

Belarus was still willing to provide peacekeeping forces to help resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, he said, an offer Lukashenko first made four years ago. A company of about 100 troops was ready and Belarus could send more, Makei said, adding there was new interest among the various parties.

After meeting EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who repeated Brussels’ demands for human rights improvements including an end to the death penalty as a condition for more EU aid, Makei said Belarus was intent on reforms toward democracy and on reducing state control of its economy to improve ties.

It was, however, keen to avoid hasty changes that might prove destabilizing.

Belarus remained eager to deepen its trade and other ties with Russia but also wanted to diversity its markets, including in trade with China, as well as with the EU and other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“China is a very important partner for us,” Makei said, noting a major Chinese investment in the Great Stone industrial park near Minsk, part of Beijing’s “new Silk Road” project promoting its trade routes to Europe.

Where 51 percent of Belarussian trade was currently with Russia and 27 percent with the EU, Makei cited a target of a balance of about a third of trade with Russia, a third with the EU and a third with the rest of the world.

He said that discussions with Europe’s EBRD development bank indicated that two Belarussian banks could be ready for privatization in a few months. Other privatization candidates included cement and building materials firm Krasnoselskstroymaterialy and the Krinitsa brewery.

Editing by Lisa Shumaker