Putin on Belarus visit

LUKASHENKO: Whose regime was once dubbed Europe's last dictatorship by the United States -- accused Russia last week of reneging on pacts and said Belarus had no option but to forge closer ties with the European Union.

The comments underlined tensions between the two countries after Belarus' moves to join the EU Eastern Partnership plan to foster closer ties between the EU and six ex-Soviet states, an initiative Moscow regards with great suspicion.

Visiting Minsk with Putin, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Moscow was examining a Belarussian request for a nine-billion-dollar (6.5-billion-euro) loan to build a nuclear power station, an ambition Lukashenko has long harboured to reduce dependence on Russian gas.

"To begin providing credit we need to be sure this station will be built, that there will be a definite sales market for the electrical energy," Kudrin said, quoted by Russian news agencies.

Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people in an authoritarian fashion since 1994.

But against a backdrop of economic crisis he has moved to improve the country's image in the West over the last months, hiring a Western PR firm and releasing prominent political prisoners.

"You see how our Russian brothers operate," Lukashenko fumed last week while railing against Russia for insufficient support.

However the Russian government said ahead of the talks it was determined to continue to expand ties between the two "brotherly countries."

The Russian government statement said Russia was already considering giving Belarus a 500-million-dollar loan on top of the same amount loaned in March, independently of the power station project.

Minsk also received a one-billion-dollar loan in November 2008.

Putin went straight into talks with Lukashenko in Minsk and was due to take part in a joint meeting of ministers of the two countries. A press conference was expected at 1400 GMT.

An official familiar with the talks confirmed to AFP that Russia hoped to build the Belarussian nuclear plant.

"That figure is connected to not only the construction of the nuclear plant but also infrastructure and an entire new town essentially," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Moscow, which has repeatedly propped up its neighbour's ailing economy, has a formal alliance agreement with Belarus and has sought to create a customs union with it and Kazakhstan.

The Kommersant daily said the Russian prime minister's visit to Minsk would either result in "sensational agreements or a great scandal" depending on how Putin reacted to Lukashenko's latest comments.

Kommersant, quoting analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, said Putin's visit was "the farewell kiss of a long-drawn-out love affair".

The EU had placed Lukashenko on a travel blacklist but this was lifted in October amid the warming ties and the president in April met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.