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Belarus's Lukashenko softens rhetoric on Russia


MINSK, June 25 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus's outspoken leader softened his recently harsh rhetoric toward Russia on Thursday, saying Moscow remains Minsk's main ally despite a host of disputes.

"Despite gas, oil, dairy and sugar scandals we remain open to the Russian people," Alexander Lukashenko said. "To Belarus, Russia has always been the main strategic ally."

Lukashenko, however, said he regretted Russia's recent steps, calling them illegitimate and harmful to bilateral ties.

"Russia has imposed numerous restrictions and bans, which run counter to bilateral agreements and have affected bilateral trade and aggravated the consequences of the global financial crisis for Belarus and for Russia's economy," the president said at a meeting with the governor of south Russia's Rostov Region, Vladimir Chub.

Earlier this month, Russia briefly banned supplies of Belarusian dairy products, the country's key export, citing failure to comply with new regulations. The ban triggered an angry reaction from Minsk, worsening ties that had already been strained over several issues, including prices for Russian-supplied natural gas.

Dairy supplies have largely resumed, but a new dispute may loom over Russian gas monopoly Gazprom's demand that Belarus pay $231 billion in overdue debt for natural gas supplies. Minsk denies the debt.

Moscow also suspended the final $500 million portion of its $2 billion stabilization loan to Belarus, after the ex-Soviet state refused to accept it in Russian rubles, insisting on U.S. dollars.

Lukashenko, who called the dairy ban "economic discrimination," shunned a security summit in Moscow earlier this month in protest. He also told his Cabinet ministers to stop "bowing down" to Russia, and to seek partners in other countries after the loan dispute.

Belarus and the EU have recently moved to rebuild ties. Europe lifted a travel ban on the leader and invited Belarus to attend an Eastern Partnership summit earlier this year along with five other ex-Soviet states, offering closer economic and political ties in exchange for commitment to democracy. Belarus had freed several political prisoners following demands from Europe.

Lukashenko also said on Thursday that the EU was not an obstacle to ties with Russia, with which Belarus is working to establish a union.

"The West does not impede our efforts to establish relations of allies with Russia," he said.

However, he said Russian restrictions have prompted Belarus to look more to trade with the West.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Belarus on Monday, saying the European Union had granted Minsk 10 million euros ($14 million) to improve food produce for export. The official also urged the country for more efforts to improve democracy.

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