Putin urges defiant Belarus to join customs bloc

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urged Belarus on Thursday to join Russia and Kazakhstan in their efforts to increase economic integration after Minsk balked at the idea of a joint customs bloc last month.

The customs union between Russia and Kazakhstan started on Thursday but Minsk -- unhappy over what it says are Russia's high oil duties duties -- bailed out last month, forcing Moscow and Astana to launch their bloc without Belarus.

A convoluted energy spat that disrupted European supplies flowing through Belarus dealt another blow to bilateral ties last week as Russia cut Belarussian energy supplies and Belarus halted transit of Russia's Europe-bound gas flow in retaliation.

Striking a conciliatory tone, Putin repeated on Thursday that Moscow wanted to see Belarus part of the joint economic project.

"I believe that it's important for us to begin work in a trilateral format with the active participation of our Belarussian partners," he said at a government meeting.

"It is this full-fledged, mutually beneficial cooperation that Russia seeks," he said in televised remarks.

Belarus's increasingly erratic leader Alexander Lukashenko has long exploited Moscow's desire to have a rare ally on its western borders in the hope of wringing economic concessions.

Russia says Belarus has nothing to complain about as it pays the lowest gas prices of any Russian energy customer. Belarus says it sees no reason to pay current oil duties if the two countries are serious about ramping up economic cooperation.

Putin said Russia was determined to continue ramping up economic cooperation with its neighbours.

"This is Russia's historic choice," he said. "Doors for such integration and for yet deeper integration are open. Whoever wants to make use of it, will have such a chance."

Russia's top business daily Vedomosti, citing an unidentified Russian official close to the customs bloc, said on Thursday that Belarus's parliament had secretly ratified the code late Wednesday.

It needs to be signed by Lukashenko to come into force, the report said.

© 2010 AFP

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