Belarus Strongman Dangles Trump at Putin in Demand for Respect

(Bloomberg) -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is wielding an unusual weapon in his struggle with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin to remain independent from Russia while securing oil supplies from his giant neighbor. He’s threatening to become friends with Donald Trump.

Michael Pompeo’s visit to the Belarusian capital Minsk last week, the first in 26 years by a U.S. secretary of state, caused a “scandal” in Russia, Lukashenko said during a regional visit Tuesday in comments posted on the presidential website. “If Trump comes tomorrow, what will they do then?” he said.

Lukashenko raised the prospect of forging deeper ties with the U.S. as he prepares for talks with Putin on Friday amid tensions with Russia over energy prices and closer political integration. Russia, which used to cover virtually all the oil and gas demands in Belarus, halted crude exports last month in a pricing dispute, forcing its former Soviet satellite to curb production at refineries and stop fuel exports.

Lukashenko retaliated by declaring he wants to reduce dependency on Russian oil to about 40% and get the rest from other countries. Belarus purchased its first-ever batch of Norwegian oil via Lithuania last month. Pompeo told him at their meeting that U.S. energy producers are ready to deliver all the oil Belarus needs at competitive prices and “all you need to do is call us.”

The Belarusian leader, who’s ruled the country of 10 million since 1994, has a history of maneuvering between Russia and the West to try to maintain his country’s independence by playing them off against each other. In recent months, however, he’s faced increasing pressure from Russia to make good on pledges in a 1999 accord to integrate political and economic structures as part of a so-called Union State.

Unified State

Some officials in the Kremlin view a unified state as a possible device to allow Putin to sidestep a constitutional ban and extend his presidency when the current term ends in 2024. Putin denies any such intention, while rare street protests broke out in Belarus in December against integration with Russia.

Lukashenko accused Russia of reneging on promises to bring oil and gas prices for Belarus on par with what it charges domestically and bemoaned high interest rates on Russian loans, saying the Kremlin just wants to “hit Belarus on the head” rather than cooperate.

“We just want honest, clean, transparent relations” with Russia, Lukashenko said. “If they don’t want that, let them tell us.”

While he doesn’t consider “the Americans are such great friends of ours,” the era of frosty relations between Belarus and the U.S. is at an end, Lukashenko said.

“We are establishing relations with the greatest empire, the leading country in the world,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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