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UPDATE 1-Belarus says Russia made oil threat, calls border plan a political attack
February 3, 2017 / 2:42 PM / 10 months ago

UPDATE 1-Belarus says Russia made oil threat, calls border plan a political attack

(Recasts, adds context, quotes)

MINSK/MOSCOW, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday a Russian move to create border zones near his country’s frontier looked like a political attack and that Moscow had threatened to halve oil supplies to Minsk.

Speaking at a marathon news conference which lasted over seven hours, Lukashenko said he sensed Russia was afraid his country, a long-time ally, would move too far out of Moscow’s orbit.

“Russia has become wary that Belarus could turn to the West,” said Lukashenko.

Relations between Russia and Belarus have soured since Lukashenko criticised Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, saying he believed it set a bad precedent.

Since then, the two countries have locked horns over the price of Russian gas and Moscow has cut oil deliveries to Belarus. Russia’s efforts to expand its military presence in Belarus have also come to nothing.

The latest problems bubbled up when Russia’s FSB security service ordered the creation of three border zones after Belarus said it would allow visa-free entry for citizens of 80 countries for visits of up to five days.

Belarus has said it was not warned about the plans and that it suspected Russia was trying to restore a formal border. Russia and Belarus are part of an economic union and have not had border controls for years.

“What is this 30 kilometre (18.64 miles) border zone? It looks to me like a political attack,” Lukashenko told reporters, saying Moscow appeared to be flouting bilateral agreements in the process.

The Kremlin played down the move, saying the measures were designed to monitor the movements of citizens from countries other than Russia and Belarus and would in no way affect Belarussian citizens.

Integration with Belarus remained a priority for Moscow, the Kremlin said in a statement on Friday.

Lukashenko complained that Moscow had also threatened to cut oil exports to Belarus by half to 12 million tonnes a year and said Russia was overcharging for its gas.

The long-term allies have long been at odds over how much Minsk should be paying Russia’s Gazprom for gas supplies following a slump in global energy prices.

In a move interpreted as an attempt by Russia to put pressure on Minsk, Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft began pumping less oil to Belarus in July last year.

“We’ll get by without Russian oil (if need be),” said Lukashenko. “If oil is weighed against independence, there’s no contest.” (Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Peter Hobson; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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