Belarus-Russia rift widens, Minsk snubs Moscow meet

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus on Sunday signaled a growing rift with Russia, saying President Alexander Lukashenko did not attend a security summit in Moscow in protest against a Russian ban on dairy imports from Belarus.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko listens to a question during an interview in Minsk May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Jury Oreshkin/Pool

Ties between the former Soviet republics have been strained since 2007. Minsk is angry at rising prices for Russian gas and Moscow by Lukashenko’s growing overtures to the West.

Lukashenko was due at a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

He pulled out after Moscow banned one of Belarus’s key exports, dairy products, on health grounds. Moscow often uses trade bans to put political pressure on neighboring states.

“Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying ... to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarussians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Lukashenko’s press service said in a statement.

A Kremlin official said: “Every state should understand very correctly the interests of its own people and soberly assess the situation in its own economy and make correct, measured conclusions rather than be guided by ambitions and emotions.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided Minsk for linking what he said were economic problems to issues of military and political security.

Russia froze a $500-million loan to Belarus last month. Lukashenko said Moscow refused the money because he turned down Kremlin demands to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

“Russia’s actions do not help in any way the adoption of the decision which it is so keen to see,” Sergei Maskevich, head of the Belarussian parliament’s foreign relations committee, told Interfax news agency, referring to the issue of recognizing Akhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

On June 6, Russia banned imports of dairy products from Belarus, cutting off a major source of exports for the indebted state, still run as a largely Soviet-style command economy.

Lukashenko canceled participation in Sunday’s CSTO summit. The CSTO controls a key land route from Europe to Afghanistan and is sometimes billed as a counterweight to NATO.

It had been due to decide on Sunday on the creation of a rapid reaction force to fight common security challenges such as drug trafficking from Afghanistan and international terrorism.

Slav neighbors Russia and Belarus have pledged to build a “union state” and have declared a passport and customs union, but progress toward political union has long been stalled.

Belarus’s border guard chief Ivan Bondarenko said on Sunday Minsk was ready to re-introduce controls on the Russian border.

Lukashenko has long been accused by the West of repressing dissent, muzzling the media and rigging elections.

But as relations with Moscow soured, he has tried to improve relations with the West by releasing dissidents from jail and promising to consider other political reforms.

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 neighbors, largely dependent on trade with Russia, analysts say.

Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Janet Lawrence