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Lukashenko offers West partnership, wants less Russia dependence

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Belarus's president delivered an annual address to parliament Tuesday, offering partnership to the West and former Soviet nations, and outlining plans to cut energy dependence on Russia.
MOSCOW, April 24 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus's president delivered an annual address to parliament Tuesday, offering partnership to the West and former Soviet nations, and outlining plans to cut energy dependence on Russia.

Relations with U.S., EU

Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election the United States and Europe refused to recognize last year citing fraud, has been accused by the West of stifling democracy and criticized for poor human rights record. Western nations have even introduced a travel ban on Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials but the president of the former Soviet nation called for leaving the prejudices in the past.

"The U.S. and the European Union should overcome the negative myths and stereotypes in relation to Belarus, which is ready to be a full, reliable, predictable and responsible partner," he said, adding that Belarus was a key transit country for resources, cargo, and passengers traveling between Europe, Russia and Asia.

Gas price hikes

European countries have been deeply concerned about their energy security after Russia suspended exports to Europe over a row with Belarus sparked by Moscow doubling gas prices to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. The situation undermined Russia's reliability as a European energy exporter.

The Belarusian leader, however, warned against reproaching Russia for the gas price hikes, saying Moscow's move would encourage his country to pursue technological research and make the economy more efficient. "We must introduce advanced technologies anyway in a bid to reduce energy consumption," Lukashenko said.

Oil exporting company

In an effort to heal the blow caused by the higher gas prices, the Belarusian president instructed the government to establish an oil exporting company that would raise the efficiency of oil imports and exports of oil derivatives. "We need to overhaul the sales of oil products to prevent mediators from keeping the money," Lukashenko said.

The Belarusian leader also set the task of consolidating the positions of national oil refineries by producing competitive oil products that would meet European standards. "To this end, it is important to increase the level of processing hydrocarbon raw materials and production of light oil products," he said, adding that this could be done through better technologies and research in the petrochemical sector.

Nuclear plant

Another way of attaining energy security for Belarus is the construction of a nuclear power plant, the president said, adding he would prefer some other country to build the plant rather than Russia, which is one of the bidders.

"We depend on Russia a great deal already, and we would like the plant to be built by others. But the price and the quality will be the main criteria," he said, adding that the plant would be safe and pose no danger to the environment.

Diversification

After Russia moved to raise gas prices for its western neighbor, Belarus began talks with other energy suppliers, such as Venezuela, Iran and Azerbaijan. Lukashenko said Belarus was not planning to import hydrocarbons from those countries yet, but added, "We need an alternative in case of a crisis."

He said Venezuela had offered its oil fields to Belarus. "And we could provide them with our goods. They are interested in our goods, because Venezuela cannot import the things it needs from the U.S. for obvious reasons," Lukashenko said in a reference to the poor relations between Washington and Caracas.

"I am sure we will be able to receive oil from Azerbaijan, Venezuela and Iran, given developed transportation routes, and this oil will not be more expensive than Russia's," the president said.

Lukashenko called for cooperation with energy exporters and transit nations within the former Soviet Union, particularly with Ukraine and Azerbaijan. "Being transit countries, we should jointly ensure reliable energy supplies to Western Europe," he said, adding that Kazakhstan, too, was an important partner.

"Kazakhstan is one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources," he said. "Our task is to develop mutually advantageous cooperation as best we can."

The Belarusian president also called for boosting defense cooperation between former Soviet countries. "Now that other nations and alliances are deploying military bases near our borders, we can only respond to the challenge together," he said in an apparent reference to the U.S. plans to deploy elements of its missile defense in Central Europe and to NATO's eastward expansion.

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