Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko takes on ally Russia in ‘milk war’

10:43, 15 June 2009
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Medvedev urged Belarus to end “hysteria”

Relations have soured between the last dictator in Europe and his closest ally after a “milk war” erupted between Belarus and Russia, Times Online reported.

Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, snubbed a meeting of former Soviet republics in Moscow yesterday in protest at a Russian ban on imports of 1,300 dairy products that earn his regime almost $1 billion a year.

President Medvedev of Russia rebuked his counterpart as not “a true partner” and told journalists that Mr Lukashenko had not even telephoned him to say that he was boycotting the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). The body represents Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Mr Medvedev urged Belarus to end “hysteria” over the milk ban. But the split deepened when Belarus declared that a decision by the CSTO to establish a military rapid-reaction force was “illegitimate” because it had not been present at the summit.

“Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying . . . to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarussians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Mr Lukashenko’s office said in a statement.

The spat with its Slavic ally comes as Mr Lukashenko seeks better relations with the European Union after years of political isolation for his authoritarian regime. Belarus was invited to join the EU’s new Eastern Partnership programme last month, which aims to improve trade and political ties with six former Soviet states.

Almost all of the two million tons of milk products exported from Belarus each year goes to Russia. But they were suddenly banned from the market last week after Russia’s state consumer watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, declared that they failed to comply with new rules on labelling.

The sanction was imposed just days after Mr Lukashenko complained that the Kremlin had been putting him under pressure to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions of Georgia.

Russia recognised both regions after its war with Georgia last August, prompting criticism from the United States and the EU. Only Nicaragua has followed suit, leaving Russia isolated diplomatically despite intense efforts to win backing from other former Soviet republics.

Belarus is particularly vulnerable as it struggles under the global financial crisis. Russia agreed a $2 billion loan to help stabilise its economy but the final $500 million has been frozen.

Mr Lukashenko said that Moscow had linked payment to recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said: “We do not want to ’sell’ any issues and positions. It has never happened in our history and it will never happen.” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, denied any link while Rospotrebnadzor insisted that the milk ban was a question of “technical regulations”. But analysts pointed out that other countries and many Russian companies had avoided sanctions despite failing to comply with the regulations, which require products to be relabelled if they contain powdered rather than fresh milk.

Russia and Belarus are linked in a “Union State” that is supposed to lead towards merger. They have already established a passport and customs union but, in a further sign of deteriorating ties, the head of Belarus’ border service said yesterday that Minsk was ready to re-establish controls on its border with Russia.

Mr Lukashenko recently told reporters that there would be “another Chechnya here” if Belarus was absorbed into Russia. He reacted furiously when Russia’s Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, warned that Belarus could be bankrupt by the end of the year.

Russia has a history of uncovering health threats to consumers at times of political tension with its neighbours. Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland have all been hit with bans on imported foodstuffs in recent years.

Times Online
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