Belarus offers Russia help over U.S. missile shield

December 16, 2007 - 0:0

MINSK (Reuters) -- Ex-Soviet Belarus agreed to join forces with Russia in opposing U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe on Friday.

""Dear comrades, we have successfully completed two major events,"" a smiling Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told a news conference ending President Vladimir Putin's first official visit to the allied kin Slav state since 2003.
The visit was timed to coincide with a summit of the Russia-Belarus ""union state"" - a reunification project agreed upon by Moscow and Minsk 10 years ago but still up in the air.
""Belarus is ready to play its role in the issues of planned deployment in Europe of U.S. missile defense systems,"" Lukashenko said at the summit.
Putin, increasingly at odds with the West over a range of security issues, responded promptly by promising Minsk only a modest increase in gas prices next year and a $1.5 billion loan to cover it.
Lukashenko did not say what form his country's assistance on the defense shield might take, but a Russian general last month suggested deploying missiles in Belarus in retaliation for the proposed U.S. missile shield.
Lukashenko also said he would work with Russia on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which limits weapons levels on the continent.
Moscow last week froze its obligations under the treaty, and policymakers say they cannot rule out boosting weapons levels on Russia's western borders if NATO countries do not heed its concerns about the treaty.
Gas prices
Ties between Belarus and Russia, for years very close allies, had effectively been stalled in the past few years because of disputes over gas and other issues.
Last year, Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom sharply increased prices for Belarus, scrapping a system of preferential rates. Gazprom had been considering a new price hike in 2008.
Signaling an effort to draw a line under that dispute, Putin said the price rise next year would be within the parameters set out in a contract signed last year.
""Yes, there will be an increase, but as foreseen in earlier contracts,"" Putin told a news conference.
Before he arrived in Minsk, there had been intense speculation in Russian media that Putin could be seeking to use a Russian-Belarus ""union state"" to provide him with a power base after he steps down as president next year.
Putin is required by the constitution to leave office in six months and has anointed loyal lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev as his favored successor.
He has said he expects to retain an influential role in Russian politics and analysts say heading the ""union state"" would be one of the options for doing that. But at the talks with Putin, Lukashenko dismissed this.
""I was surprised to see the visit triggered such a fuss in the West,"" Lukashenko said during one-to-one talks with Putin.
""There are no political connotations here. We are friendly and allied states and I would be surprised if there was no official visit ... There is nothing extraordinary here.""