Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says Russia has no intention of "swallowing" Belarus but added that further integration between the two countries is a "must."
"There is no ill intention on the Russian president’s [Vladimir Putin] side to incorporate Belarus into Russia. The huge country has no intentions to swallow Belarus," Lukashenka said at a televised press conference in Minsk on March 1.
Lukashenka added "98 percent of Belarusians would vote against becoming part of Russia."
Lukashenka’s fresh comments come less than two weeks after his latest round of talks with Putin on further integration under a mid-1990s union treaty that still exists largely on paper.
Speaking to reporters and members of public organizations on March 1, Lukashenka said major issues between the two nations still need to be resolved before there can be further talk of integration.
"We must not even talk about some kind of alliances before we solve all the problems between the two nations," Lukashenka said, adding that "Russian leadership, especially the government are not ready to go that way."
Lukashenka also said his country might agree to a single currency with Russia.
"They are offering us a [single] currency. He [President Putin] tells me that it surely must be the ruble. I answer: 'Of course it will be the ruble. We have rubles, you have rubles,'" Lukashenka said.
Talking about the Russian language's dominance in his country, Lukashenka said that both Belarusian and Russian are his native languages and there is "nothing wrong" that Russian is the second state language in Belarus.
However, he indirectly criticized the Kremlin's attempts to get more supporters of its policies in the former Soviet republics using "the Russian World" slogan in its anti-Western propaganda:
"We all speak Russian. Then why impose some kind of 'the Russian World' on Belarus? To spread confusion among its people?" Lukashenka said.
Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, regional groupings that observers say Putin uses to bolster Moscow's influence in the former Soviet Union and to counter the European Union and NATO.
Lukashenka expressed concerns over what he called the "politicization" of the EES.
"I do not have big hopes about our Eurasian Union. There is too much tension, there are too many differences. And it is unacceptable that the economic union starts getting politicized," Lukashenka said.
"So many items have been taken off the list of goods for mutual trade.... There is too much national selfishness," Lukashenka said.
Wariness about Moscow's intentions toward its neighbors has risen in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its military, political, and economic support for militants in parts of eastern Ukraine, leading to an armed conflict in which some 13,000 people have been killed.
However, the Ukrainian scenario is not possible in Belarus "while I am in charge," Lukashenka said.
He criticized unnamed Russian websites for launching what he called an "information war" against Belarus and called on Belarusians "to unite to be able to stand against threats from East and West."
Lukashenka's marathon press conference was held less than two weeks after his talks in Minsk with visiting European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources Gunther Oettinger, during which Lukashenka said Belarus will "always be a reliable partner of the European Union."
The EU eased sanctions against Belarus in 2016 after the release of several people considered political prisoners, but has criticized Lukashenka's government for a violent March 2017 clampdown on demonstrators protesting an unemployment tax.
Lukashenka said he plans to run in the next presidential election. The election is officially scheduled for 2020, but Lidzia Yarmozhina, the chief of the Central Election Commission, said earlier that either the presidential or parliamentary elections might be held in 2019.
Lukashenka, who has been president since 1994, won a fifth term in a 2015 election that was judged by Western monitors to be neither free nor fair.