MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he wanted neighbouring Belarus to reactivate stalled plans for more integration with Russia after a contested election win left Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, an on-off Russian ally, on the defensive.
Putin made his suggestion as the opposition in Belarus rejected official election results handing Lukashenko a landslide re-election victory, saying that talks needed to begin on a peaceful transfer of power.
Thousands of people unhappy with the results clashed with police across Belarus on Sunday night.
The Russian leader has long pushed for closer ties with Minsk under the auspices of a unified state, something Lukashenko has so far rejected, accusing Russia of wanting to swallow up his country of 9.5 million people.
Belarus is a key transit country for Russian oil flowing to the West, and Moscow has long viewed it as a useful buffer zone between itself and NATO.
“I hope your state activity will facilitate mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas, deepen cooperation within the Union State, and build up integration processes,” Putin said in a congratulatory telegram to Lukashenko.
Putin said he hoped Belarus would opt, too, for closer military-political ties with Russia inside a defence bloc that they both belong to.
There was no immediate response from Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former collective farm manager who has spent years trying to play Russia off against the West and China, blowing hot and cold on closer ties to Moscow.
He has previously baulked at closer ties after Russia scaled back subsidies to the Belarusian energy sector, and in a pre-election speech excoriated Russia, saying Moscow had downgraded formerly brotherly relations to those of a partnership.
Lukashenko said last week that oil disputes with Russia had deprived his country of $700 million after the two countries failed to agree an oil supply contract earlier this year.
He has also rejected Russian overtures to open an air base on Belarusian soil and accused a group of detained Russian private security contractors of flying into Belarus before the election to help bring about a revolution, something Moscow has flatly denied.
Putin is not the only one watching events in Russia’s tiny neighbour.
The anti-Kremlin opposition say they are following closely to see how effective the Belarusian opposition play-book is, saying they believe Russia will face a similar scenario to Belarus when Putin is next up for re-election in 2024.
(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Catherine Evans)