Belarusian leader says most oppose unification with Russia
Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko said Friday that 98 percent of citizens of the ex-Soviet country oppose unification with Russia as speculation grows that Kremlin is pressuring Minsk into closer integration.
The veteran leader told journalists that if Belarusians were asked in a referendum today, “98 percent would vote against the unification of the two countries — or what many in Russia see as Belarus becoming part of Russia.”
“Today Belarusians want to be together with Russia but want to live in their own home,” he said.
Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the two have formed a nominal “union” with close trade and military cooperation while arguing over sticking points such as energy prices and import duties.
Speculation has been swirling in recent months that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pressuring neighbouring Belarus into closer integration with a view to establishing a unified state.
Such a move could possibly extend Putin’s time in power when his fourth presidential term ends in 2024 by making him the head of a new “unified” state including Belarus.
However, the Kremlin has dismissed such suggestions.
Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from neighbouring Ukraine and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine sent shivers through Belarus.
Lukashenko — who met with Putin for three days of talks in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi last month — said the two leaders discussed the countries’ union and both took a cautious approach.
“We firmly agreed that today we must not put on too much pressure or take steps that would do any harm,” he added.
In December, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow was ready for closer integration with Belarus — including a common currency, shared customs services and courts — in line with a 1999 agreement to create a “union state.”
Moscow denies that outright unification is on the cards, however.
Talk of pressure from Russia intensified after Moscow recently announced a tax change on oil exports that could cost Belarus more than $10 billion by 2024.
Addressing a Russian journalist, Lukashenko demanded that Moscow stop calling Belarusians “freeloaders.”
“When people, especially me, hear this, I don’t want any union,” he said testily.