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'Moment of truth has come,' says Belarus' Lukashenko as he prepares for Putin showdown this week

'Moment of truth has come,' says Belarus' Lukashenko as he prepares for Putin showdown this week
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is no stranger to playing east against west, and recently the wily fox has upped the ante in his hunt for trade and economic concessions from Moscow.

After all, you don't keep power for 26 years by playing the shrinking violet. Now he's talking about a "moment of truth" ahead of a summit with Vladimir Putin.

Last weekend, he met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk and has been openly flirting with the West – which, presumably for geopolitical reasons, no longer seems to call him "Europe's last dictator."

Meanwhile, Lukashenko's Russian allies have been tightening the screws. Moscow is upset at Minsk's refusal to agree to further integration, which it believes is required to properly implement the "union state" the two countries signed up for two decades ago. The squabble has dragged on for years with Lukashenko originally promising to introduce a common currency in 2004.

Late last year, the Kremlin called his bluff, demanding the establishment of supranational bodies, including a shared ruble. Moscow then insisted progress on these issues was a condition of Belarus retaining oil and gas discounts that it has long enjoyed. An important money-spinner for Minsk has been acquiring Russian crude at below-market rates, then refining it, and selling it on to third countries at full price.

Lukashenko responded by sourcing Norwegian oil, at a premium, believed to be around $20 a ton, to show he had other options. Just last weekend, Pompeo said the US could supply 100 percent of Belarus' oil needs if asked. The problem is nobody can explain how Minsk could pay its bills if it alienates Russia, given how reliant its economy is on its larger neighbor.

On Tuesday, the Belarusian leader was talking tough. "We have built these good relations [between Belarus and Russia]. We were the architects of these relations," Lukashenko said about Putin. "Are we the ones to break them at the end of our political careers? We cannot be here forever. The question is what legacy we will leave."

He was referring to his Russian counterpart's intention to leave the Kremlin at the end of his current term. Lukashenko clarified that his country seeks "fair, genuine, and transparent relations" with Russia, emphasizing that Belarus is a "sovereign and independent state that pursues its own foreign policy."

Pompeo was the first US secretary of state to visit Belarus for more than 25 years, signaling a thaw in the relationship between the two nations. In 2006, the USA imposed sanctions on Belarus, with Pompeo's predecessor Condoleezza Rice describing the country as "Europe's last dictatorship," popularizing a phrase.

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During a paper factory inspection, the Belarusian president announced that ties between Minsk and Washington are out of cold storage. "I will not say that the United States is such a great friend of ours. But the period of this freeze, when we looked at each other over some reinforced concrete thick wall, is over," he said. "There is no need to moan or worry in this regard."

Lukashenko added how the United States is "the greatest empire, the leading country in the world." An emphasis Moscow may note, even if it wouldn't dispute the accuracy.

"But have we advanced more in relations with the United States than Russia? Look at them," he continued, with reference to Russia. "They are trying to make nice with [the US], though it is not actually working. Are we worried? We are happy when [Washington and Moscow] cuddle and kiss. Yet, they mounted hysteria over the visit of the secretary of state."

Lukashenko also revealed that he had previously worked with Pompeo during his stint as director of the CIA, and that the pair had shared information.

Also on Tuesday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced that it will appoint its new ambassador to Washington in the upcoming months, the first in over a decade.

- with additional reporting by Jonny Tickle. 

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