Belarus boycotts summit in Russia dispute

Other News Materials 15 June 2009 05:22 (UTC +04:00)

Two former Soviet republics refused to sign onto a deal Sunday to create a NATO-style rapid-reaction force for a Moscow-dominated security alliance, undermining a Kremlin bid to bolster its power and prestige amid a struggle with the West for regional clout, AP reported.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko angrily boycotted the Moscow summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization amid a politically charged trade dispute with longtime ally Russia. Central Asian power Uzbekistan attended the summit but balked at signing a deal that could increase Moscow's influence over its affairs.

Russia and its partners in the seven-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization agreed in February to create a collective force that could be dispatched to stem terrorism, drug trafficking and local conflicts. But only five presidents signed Sunday's deal on its mandate, makeup and potential operations.

Lukashenko snubbed the summit to protest a Russian ban on his country's milk and dairy products. Long a staunch backer of Russia in its disagreements with the West, the authoritarian leader of Belarus has been courting the U.S. and European Union amid increasingly strained ties with Moscow.

Lukashenko accused Russia of trying "to force Belarusians to their knees" with the ban.

"How can we talk about strengthening collective security in this situation?" Lukashenko said in a statement.

After signing the deal with the leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said it would strengthen the alliance and enable it to "respond much more effectively to the most serious threats."

An effective rapid-reaction force would raise the profile of the alliance, seen as an anemic answer to NATO, and would increase Moscow's influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where the Kremlin is competing with the West over political influence, energy resources and export routes.

Uzbekistan and Russia have close security ties, and hard-line Uzbek leader Islam Karimov won Russia's support for a violent 2005 crackdown that led to Western condemnation. Uzbekistan evicted U.S. forces from a staging base for operations in neighboring Afghanistan, but its relations with Washington have improved somewhat since.

Russian officials shrugged off Belarusian claims that the rapid-reaction force deal was illegitimate without Lukashenko's signature. Medvedev said Karimov had vowed to give it more thought, and expressed hope that Belarus would also come around.

But he seemed to acknowledge the lack of a consensus could hamper plans for the force.

"I hope that these milk hysterics do not in the end spoil work on the collective rapid-reaction force," Medvedev said, standing alongside Armenia's president at a post-summit news conference that none of the other leaders attended.

Lukashenko said Belarus would withhold approval until the dairy dispute is resolved. He suggested Moscow risks losing the military support of Belarus - a buffer between Russia and NATO - if it withdraws longstanding economic backing.

Medvedev warned Lukashenko he is playing with fire, saying 93 percent of Belarusian meat and dairy exports go to Russia. "Russia is a very important market for Belarus," he said.

The dairy ban came after Lukashenko accused Russia - which has raised prices for its energy supplies to Belarus - of trying to take over his nation's industries and destroy its sovereignty.

Russia insists the dairy ban is not politically motivated, saying imports will be allowed once Belarusian producers comply with new industry rules.

But Moscow has used trade measures as a lever of pressure in the past. A Russian ban on wine and mineral water from Georgia was among the growing irritants that preceded their war last August.