MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus doesn't want to host a Russian military air base, President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday, a statement that highlighted a strain between the two neighbors and allies.
Lukashenko said that he knows nothing about plans to set up a Russian air base in Belarus and added that his nation doesn't need it, according to state news agency Belta.
"I feel surprised and, to some extent, angry and annoyed by that," he said.
The Belarusian leader's statement follows Russian President Vladimir Putin's order to his government last month to sign an agreement on a Russian military base in Belarus. The two countries have close political, economic and military ties, and Belarus depends on Russian energy and other subsidies.
The Russian military already has an early warning radar and a navy communications facility in Belarus, but setting up an air base would mark a significantly bigger military presence.
The Russian move comes at a time when Lukashenko has moved to improve Belarus ties with the West, which long were strained over his crackdown on dissent and free media.
The Belarusian leader hinted Tuesday that Moscow might want to establish the base to try to hamper Belarus' efforts to warm up ties with the West.
"Maybe they are worried that we are going to go to the West, and they raised the issue so that the West starts asking us about it and having doubts whether we really want to normalize ties," he said.
The Kremlin had no immediate comment on the statement by Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is certain to win a fifth term in Sunday's election against token challengers.
On Sunday, about 1,000 opposition activists in the Belarusian capital protested Russia's plans to set up the base, voicing fear that it would add to regional tensions already heightened by the conflict in Ukraine, and make it impossible for Belarus to maintain neutrality between Russia and the West.
Alexander Klaskovsky, a Minsk-based independent political analyst, said that Lukashenko has always tried to maneuver between Russia and the West during more than two decades in power, and he now fears that the Russian base would limit his freedom of action.
"He's trying to avoid isolation and total dependence from the Kremlin, and the air base in Belarus would make him a Russian vassal," Klaskovsky said.