On a visit to Russia’s Murmansk region, Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka dusted off and enlarged his financial claims on Russia. Lukashenka asserted that Russia has piled up at least $1 billion worth of debts to Belarus each year since the creation of the Russia-Belarus Union exactly two years ago. He listed, among other things, the cost of maintaining the air defense of Belarus (which covers the western approaches to Russia’s airspace), transit of Russian goods to Europe on Belarusan railroads and highways, Russian natural gas exports via Belarus, and part of the costs incurred by Belarus in guarding the Union’s "external borders." Lukashenka hastened to add, however, that he "does not plan to bill Russia for those funds," particularly because "Russia does not have that money, and would not give it anyhow even if it had it." He also attacked the Russian government for failing to implement agreements made by him with President Boris Yeltsin. (Russian agencies, March 24 and 25)
The statements amount to a counterattack after Gazprom reduced gas deliveries to Belarus by 30 percent due to arrears, and after the Russian government declined to support the plummeting Belarusan ruble unless Belarus accepts Russian takeovers of industrial property. Lukashenka seeks Russian recognition of "debts" to Belarus in the hope of deducting the gas and other arrears from those "debts." At the same time, differences over economics have not impinged on political and security cooperation. Lukashenka reaffirmed in Murmansk that he would continue covering Russia’s western flank militarily "free of charge;" and remarked that "I may be illegitimate to the USA, but I am and will be legitimate to Russia." A few days ago, Lukashenka expressed gratitude to Russia’s intelligence services for informing him on the opposition’s activities. (See Monitor, March 24)
U.S.-Georgia Military Cooperation Plan Signed.