MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday it was only a matter of time before NATO took in Ukraine and Georgia, and called for joint efforts with Russia to counter the alliance’s expansion.
NATO failed at its summit in Romania to grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a step in the process of joining -- to the two former Soviet republics. But Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said both would eventually become members.
Lukashenko, long an opponent of NATO and the United States, said Russia and Belarus could withstand the alliance’s move eastward by bolstering a post-Soviet “union state” merger, which has made little progress since being agreed in the mid-1990s.
“We cannot simply sit back and say that everything around us is peaceful, that there are no problems around Belarus,” Lukashenko was quoted by the BELTA news agency as telling a meeting of senior officials.
“The NATO bloc has set its sights on former Soviet republics. I believe it is a matter of time before Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. No one is taking any heed of the position of Russia, Belarus and other post-Soviet republics.”
Lukashenko, accused by Western countries of flouting human rights, has been barred entry to the United States and European Union on grounds of rigging his re-election in 2006.
Belarus had been invited to attend a meeting in Bucharest this week of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which oversees cooperation with states outside NATO. But it opted out, saying NATO was placing restrictions on who could attend.
In his comments to officials, Lukashenko said it was up to Belarus to boost its defense capability under the “union state” agreement with Russia.
“Our army is the only force on the Western (flank) of the union of Belarus and Russia, our union state. We are linked by treaty to Russia,” he was quoted as saying.
“In defending Belarus, we are defending the western border of the union state. The treaty with Russia is sacred. We must implement it rigorously.”
Russia has cooled to the proposed merger and the neighbors last year quarreled about energy prices, prompting Lukashenko to seek improved relations with the West, particularly the EU.
But he continues to denounce NATO and the United States, whose ambassador left Belarus last month at the urging of authorities angry at what they saw as new sanctions.
The Foreign Ministry has asked the United States to cut its staff at its Minsk embassy for the second time in a month. Washington has called Belarus the “last dictatorship in Europe”.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Timothy Heritage
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