MINSK, Belarus (AP) — New cracks emerged Thursday in a Russia-led economic alliance, with the president of Belarus warning that his nation may opt out of it.
Alexander Lukashenko also sternly warned Moscow Thursday that his nation of 10 million will never be part of the "Russian world," a term coined by the Kremlin that reflects its hopes to pull ex-Soviet nations closer into its orbit.
"Those who think that the Belarusian land is part as what they call the Russian world, almost part of Russia, forget about it!" Lukashenko said. "Belarus is a modern and independent state."
Lukashenko, who has been at the helm since 1994, has relied on Russia's economic subsidies and political support but bristled at Moscow's attempts to expand its control over Belarusian assets.
He was dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in the West for his relentless crackdown on the opposition and free media, but Belarus' relations with the United States and the European Union have warmed recently as Minsk played host to crucial Ukrainian peace talks.
Lukashenko said he wants to normalize ties with Western nations and issued a clear warning to Moscow that it shouldn't expect Belarus to follow suit in defying the West.
In another signal of growing frictions between the two allies, Lukashenko, who plans to seek another term in elections this year, said he warned Moscow that he wouldn't step down.
"As for sending me into retirement, I harshly told them in the Kremlin that they won't succeed in bending me," he said.
Last month, he accused Moscow of damaging Belarus' economic interests with moves to restrict exports to Russia, which he said violated the rules of the Eurasian Economic Union, a grouping that comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
On Thursday, Lukashenko warned that if the agreements on forming the alliance aren't observed, "we reserve the right to leave the union."
Belarus, sandwiched between Russia and European Union members Poland and Lithuania, has profited handsomely from Moscow's ban on imports of EU food in retaliation to Western sanctions against Russia by boosting imports of food from the EU nations and reselling the food to Russia.
The Russian authorities have retaliated by restricting imports of Belarus' own milk and meat and banning transit of Belarusian food bound for Kazakhstan through its territory on suspicion that much of it ended up in Russia.