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Belarus Says Not Pulling Out Of Russian Orbit

Lukashenka (left) with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Minsk
ZASLAVL, Belarus (Reuters) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has told Russia he would maintain traditionally strong ties despite more than a year of attempts to end international isolation and move closer to the West.

"Some people have been hinting that we have started thinking about a trade -- Russia for Europe," Lukashenka told reporters before talks with Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, who served two terms as president before stepping down this year.

"We never make such trades with anyone. We would never trade our friendship with the Russians."

Speaking alongside Lukashenka before their meeting near the Belarusian capital, Minsk, Putin said Moscow was ready to bolster its neighbor's financial system.

The government controls much of the economy in Belarus, which has so far suffered only limited effects from global financial turmoil. The ex-Soviet state, however, has sought help paying an increased bill for imported gas -- the prime reason behind a row with Russia last year.

"Russia is prepared to review questions of deepening our cooperation, of supporting the Belarusian financial system if necessary," Putin said.

Russia also suggested that Belarus use the Russian ruble as a reserve currency, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported, quoting Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach, accompanying Putin to the Belarusian capital.

The European Union and the United States accuse Belarus of violating fundamental rights during Luskahenka's 14 years in power and have imposed sanctions, including an entry ban on the president and punitive measures against Belarusian companies.

Lukashenka has sought to improve relations with the West since the energy dispute with Moscow. Russia has been seeking to raise prices for ex-Soviet customers to bring them up to market rates.

Belarusian courts in August freed the last of what the European Union and the United States labeled political prisoners.

Officials in Belarus had also hoped to receive a Western endorsement of parliamentary elections last month, but observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote fell short of accepted standards.

Western states, whose ties with Russia deteriorated after Moscow's brief war with Georgia in August, have signaled to Lukashenka that rapprochement is possible.