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Russia/Belarus: Tensions Remain In Putin-Lukashenka Talks

President of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo) Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held talks in Sochi today. Although both leaders tried to put a friendly face on the discussions, tensions in bilateral relations remain with little immediate hope of overcoming unresolved difficulties.

Prague, 4 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The last time the two leaders sat down for talks was in October 2004 and much has happened in the intervening time, including neighboring Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Moldova's parliamentary elections, and Kyrgyzstan's overthrow of President Askar Akaev in late March.

These events have shaken the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and driven the Belarus leadership further into isolation. They also cast doubt on the viability of a planned regional Common Economic Space, that was to have grouped together Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
Plans for a Russian-Belarusian union seem as remote as ever, giving both leaders plenty of fodder for discussions today in Sochi.

The new leadership in Kyiv says it is no longer interested, as it strives to draw closer to the European Union.

To top it all off, plans for a Russian-Belarusian union seem as remote as ever, giving both leaders plenty of fodder for discussions today in Sochi. Belarus's adoption of the Russian ruble, which was due to take place in January has been delayed until next year, with both sides continuing to disagree over whether Moscow should finance Minsk's growing budget deficit.

But it's not clear if any of this was discussed in much detail. At a final news conference, both leaders summed up their talks in vague terms.

This was Putin's take: "We discussed issues of security in both countries and cooperation among our government agencies in ensuring the rights of Russian and Belarusian citizens, in Russia and Belarus respectively. We discussed a broad range of issues of cooperation among various government agencies."

Lukashenka, who arrived early today saying recent events should prompt a re-evaluation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), appeared to indicate the status quo will remain for now.

"I am certain that the CIS has not exhausted its potential yet,” Putin said. “I am sure this organization could be useful to all of us in the areas of economy, politics, diplomacy, foreign relations and defense."

There was also no information on whether the two countries had firmly resolved their differences over the price of Russian gas deliveries.

The issue of Russian gas deliveries to Belarus this year was apparently resolved following a visit to Minsk by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. But an agreement on long-term sales continues to be a point of contention.

Putin, in his remarks to journalists earlier this morning, glossed over these problems, saying bilateral ties were as good as ever.

"The economy is growing. Our bilateral trade balance is getting bigger,” Putin said. “As far as I know, thank God, we have no energy problems. Our energy specialists tell me that they are in constant contact with their Belarusian colleagues."

Lukashenka also took pains to tell journalists the two leaders had not fallen out. He said: "the main thing in our meeting is that we should really give some kind of signal about our good relations so that people don't think that we have some kind of problems in our relations and, therefore, we don't talk about them and we don't meet. As far as I understand, this is not the case."

Both leaders say they plan to meet again next month in Moscow, along with other CIS leaders, on the sidelines of celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.