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Belarus PM in Moscow as West threatens sanctions

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will meet his Belarussian counterpart on Thursday for energy talks as the West explores imposing sanctions against Minsk over its opposition crackdown.

The European Union said on Wednesday it would reinstate a travel ban on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko if he fails to release his jailed opponents and Washington is also exploring a range of possible sanctions.

Moscow, by contrast, has sought to distance itself from what it said was its neighbour’s “internal affair” as it seeks to pursue joint economic projects with Minsk.

Putin and Belarussian premier Mikhail Myasnikovich are meeting in an attempt to resolve an oil supply standoff but their talks will be closely watched in the West for signs of Moscow’s future policy over Belarus.

Myasnikovich’s visit comes ahead of Lukashenko’s inauguration after a hugely controversial vote followed by a crackdown on political opponents.

Following December 19 polls, thousands of people protested on election night in the Belarussian capital Minsk against what they perceived as unfair elections that gave incumbent strongman Lukashenko a fourth presidential term.

The protest was followed by a violent crackdown and detention of over 600 people, including most of the candidates who stood against Lukashenko.

While the West says Lukashenko risks complete isolation, Russia is pressing ahead with its attempts to build a joint customs bloc and single economic space which will also include ex-Soviet nation of Kazakhstan.

In recent years Russia and Belarus have often been at loggerheads over energy prices and customs duties.

Last summer, European Union member Lithuania briefly suffered gas supply disruptions when gas giant Gazprom reduced supplies to Belarus and Minsk halted transit of Russia’s European-bound supplies in retaliation.

Following the most recent pricing dispute, Russia cut crude supplies to Belarus from January 1 but transit supplies to Europe continue, both countries say.

“The transit continues at full capacity, there are no problems,” Igor Dyomin, spokesman for Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft, told AFP, adding that the countries were likely to resolve the issue Thursday.