Minsk: Belarus doesn't want to host a Russian military air base, President Alexander Lukashenko said today, a statement that highlighted a strain between the two neighbors and allies.
Lukashenko said that he knows nothing about plans to set up a Russian air base in Belarus and added that his nation doesn't need it, according to state news agency Belta. "I feel surprised and, to some extent, angry and annoyed by that," he said.
The Belarusian leader's statement follows Russian President Vladimir Putin's order to his government last month to sign an agreement on a Russian military base in Belarus. The two countries have close political, economic and military ties, and Belarus depends on Russian energy and other subsidies.
The Russian military already has an early warning radar and a navy communications facility in Belarus, but setting up an air base would mark a significantly bigger military presence.
The Russian move comes at a time when Lukashenko has moved to improve Belarus ties with the West, which long were strained over his crackdown on dissent and free media. The Belarusian leader hinted Tuesday that Moscow might want to establish the base to try to hamper Belarus' efforts to warm up ties with the West.
"Maybe they are worried that we are going to go to the West, and they raised the issue so that the West starts asking us about it and having doubts whether we really want to normalize ties," he said.
The Kremlin had no immediate comment on the statement by Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is certain to win a fifth term in Sunday's election against token challengers.