SOCHI, RUSSIA – Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko arrived on Wednesday for three days of talks and skiing with Russian President Vladimir Putin — their third meeting since Dec. 25.
Meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi — the 2014 Winter Olympic Games host city — the leaders discussed closer integration of their ex-Soviet countries before hitting the slopes.
The talks focused on bilateral issues and “the prospects of integration processes,” the Kremlin said.
Speculation has been swirling in recent months that Moscow is pressuring Belarus into closer integration with a view to establishing a unified state — and possibly extending Putin’s stay in power at its helm.
In remarks released to the media, the two leaders sought to praise their nations’ tight ties and dismiss reports of recent tensions.
“We have a big program — today and in the next two days,” Putin told Lukashenko, calling Belarus Russia’s “most important strategic partner.”
“I know there are hiccups and there are problems, just the way it happens between friends. I hope these problems will get solved in the future just like they were in the past,” the Russian leader said.
Lukashenko responded in kind. “The ties between Belarus and Russia are unshakeable, no matter what someone writes or says,” he said.
In December, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow was ready for closer integration with Belarus — including a common currency, shared customs services and courts — in line with a 1999 agreement to create a “union state.”
Moscow denies talk of outright unification, however.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has dismissed suggestions the Kremlin was looking for a way to prolong Putin’s time in power when his fourth presidential term ends in 2024 by making him the head of a new, “unified” state.
The outspoken Belarussian leader has been more blunt, saying last month unification “was not on the agenda.”
Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the two have formed a nominal “union” with close trade and military cooperation.
But the countries have bickered for years over a multitude of issues including energy prices and import duties.
Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine in 2014 sent shivers through Belarus.
Talks of Moscow pressure intensified after a recent oil tax change by Russia that could cost Belarus more than $10 billion by 2024.
Lukashenko has accused Russia of seeking to blackmail Belarus into deeper integration.
The Belarus leader said in December that Moscow’s approach is: “Listen, here’s your oil, but you destroy your country and become part of Russia.”