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Belarus wins Russia energy deals as Western pressure grows

Russia on Thursday pledged unequivocal support to Belarus, offering it several billion dollars worth of oil subsidies and loans as the West moves to isolate Minsk after a controversial election.

After several hours of talks with visiting Belarussian premier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help its neighbour build a $6 billion nuclear plant and would continue to supply Minsk with subsidised oil.

“We are hoping for constructive dialogue, the deepening of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarussian cooperation,” Putin said alongside Belarussian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, who chose Moscow for his first foreign trip since being appointed to the post late last year.

The two leaders were meeting after Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko was elected to a fourth term in December polls that the opposition said were rigged, with thousands of people protesting on election night.

That protest was followed by a violent crackdown and detention of over 600 people, including most of the candidates who stood against Lukashenko. The European Union said on Wednesday it would reinstate a travel ban on Lukashenko if he fails to release his jailed opponents.

Moscow, by contrast, has sought to distance itself from what it called its neighbour’s “internal affair” and Putin reiterated Russia’s position on Thursday, saying the two would only discuss the fate of Russian nationals kept in Belarussian jails.

Russia would not slam sanctions against Minsk however, he said.

“As far as I know, the Russian parliament is not going to pass any declarations, resolutions or other documents,” Putin said when asked to comment on the European Union’s threat to impose sanctions against Belarus.

Instead he pledged Moscow’s outright support for the ex-Soviet neighbour with which Russia is building a joint customs bloc and single economic space that will also include the ex-Soviet nation of Kazakhstan.

Myasnikovich, for his part, thanked Putin for Russia’s help, saying Moscow and Minsk would sign an agreement on building a nuclear plant — a project shelved since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — in the first quarter of this year.

Putin said the plant, a first for Belarus, would help ramp up its energy independence.

“We understand that it is a very important project for Belarus. It increases the energy independence of the republic,” he said. Putin estimated the cost of the project at nearly $6 billion and said Russia was ready to consider providing a loan.

The nuclear power plant’s construction was first envisioned in the early 1980s but then put on hold by the Soviet Union following the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine.

The project was resurrected in recent years following a series of energy disputes between Russia and Belarus.

After the most recent dispute, Russia cut crude supplies to Belarus from January 1 but transit supplies to Europe continue, both countries say. Putin and Myasnikovich said they had discussed the pricing conflict and their respective governments would sort out the remaining issues in the near future.

Putin added however that Belarus would continue to receive subsidised oil supplies.

“The Belarussian economy will receive subsidies from cheap Russian oil of an order of no less than $4.124 billion,” he said.