Kremlin snubs Belarus strongman in new row: report

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered his foreign minister to avoid Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko on a visit to Minsk, adding to tensions ahead of elections next month, reports said Tuesday.

Relations between Minsk and Moscow -- unstinting allies for most of the period after the fall of the Soviet Union -- have nose-dived in recent months as Lukashenko prepares for presidential elections on December 19.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is currently visiting Belarus and the lack of a meeting with Lukashenko will be seen as a sign the Kremlin has no intention of backing the president even if, as expected, he wins the vote.

"The meeting was not planned as the head of the Russian foreign ministry had precise instructions from the Russian president to that effect," the RIA Novosti state news agency quoted a Kremlin source as saying.

A Kremlin spokesman told AFP he could not confirm the reports. Lukashenko traditionally meets with all top Russian dignitaries.

The Kommersant daily gave a different version of events, saying it was Lukashenko who snubbed Lavrov by refusing to meet with him on his visit to the Belarussian capital.

Famously once slammed by the United States as "Europe's last dictator", the mercurial Lukashenko has in recent years made more positive noises to the West and become increasingly unpredictable towards Russia.

In June, Russia drastically cut gas supplies to Belarus amid a row over payments.

Lukashenko has ruled the state of 10 million that lies between three EU states and Russia since 1994. He has long promoted a folksy image at home and likes to be known as "batka" (dad).

Ten candidates have registered to stand in the polls. Despite Russia's changing sympathies, observers say a victory for the incumbent president is a foregone conclusion although Moscow could create difficulties for him in the aftermath of the vote.

Lavrov was on Tuesday morning meeting with his Belarussian counterpart Sergei Martynov and planned to address a news conference later in the day.

© 2010 AFP

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