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Belarus Leader Snubs Moscow Security Pact Summit


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
(RFE/RL) -- Belarus has signaled a growing rift with Russia, saying President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would not attend a security summit in Moscow.

Lukashenka had been due to take part in the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), during which an agreement on the creation of a collective security force was signed.

Belarus's Foreign Ministry announced that Minsk was "forced" to cancel its participation in the CSTO summit following Russia's ban on imports of its dairy products.

The statement called Moscow's move "open discrimination" which undermines economic security.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Belarus had “excessively politicized” what he called a “technical issue.”

Belarus had been slated to take over the CSTO's rotating leadership at the June 14 summit. But the meeting went ahead despite the absence of the Belarusian delegation.

Speaking at a news conference after the event, Medvedev announced that he and other leaders of CSTO member states had signed an agreement creating a joint rapid-reaction force to fight common security challenges such as drug trafficking from Afghanistan and international terrorism.

The CSTO groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and four Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan also did not sign the agreement.

RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports that Medvedev met his Kazakh and Kyrgyz counterparts, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, on the sidelines of the summit.

Earlier in the day, the French news agency AFP quoted an unidentified source in the Kyrgyz government as saying Bakiev and Medvedev would discuss the future of a U.S. air base on the sidelines of the summit.

Kyrgyzstan has ordered U.S. forces to quit the Manas air base, which is used to support operations in Afghanistan, by August 18.

Bakiev is also expected to meet his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, on June 15 in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Karzai has appealed to Bakiev to allow the U.S. base to remain open.

Belarus has been Moscow's close ally since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But ties have recently deteriorated.

Russia announced on June 6 that it was banning the import of 500 kinds of Belarusian dairy products, cutting off a major source of exports for Belarus. Moscow claimed Belarusian exporters were failing to fill out the required documentation.

In late May, Russia withheld the last quarter of a $2-billion loan to Belarus. Lukashenka said Moscow refused the money because he turned down Kremlin demands to recognize the breakaway Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Amid increasingly strained relations with Moscow, Lukashenka has been courting the West, releasing a number of opposition figures.

On June 8, Lukashenka pledged to maintain "a long-held strategic course" of closer political and economic ties between Belarus and the European Union. He made the comment during a visit by Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar.