(Bloomberg) -- Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said Russia’s leaders are “hinting” that he should accept a merger of their two countries in return for getting cheaper oil and gas, amid a squeeze on energy supplies from his giant neighbor.
Lukashenko said he’s certain neither Belarusians nor Russians “want to go this way,” during a visit to factory workers on Friday, according to his website. He described talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week as “peculiar.”
While Putin has unveiled planned constitutional changes that may allow him to keep power in Russia beyond the end of his presidential term in 2024, when he must step down, he has also pressed Lukashenko to agree to a merger between the former Soviet republics, according to two Kremlin officials. Absorbing Belarus would offer Putin another option to sidestep term limits by becoming the head of a new “Union State.”
Amid a dispute over the price of Russian oil supplies to Belarus, Lukashenko said Putin questioned why he would seek crude from other countries if it was more expensive. “So that we don’t have to be on our knees on Dec. 31 every year,” Lukashenko said he replied, in reference to annual contracts negotiated with Russia.
The Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Lukashenko, who’s ruled since 1994 and faces re-election later this year, signed a treaty with Russia under then President Boris Yeltsin to establish a “Union State” in principle in 1999, but has resisted recent Kremlin pressure to bind the countries more tightly together.
Russia, which used to meet almost all Belarus’s oil and gas requirements, cut supplies of crude by three-fourths in January over the pricing dispute. Officials in Moscow warned flows may stop completely if Belarus doesn’t agree to market prices. Lukashenko has retaliated by declaring he wants to reduce dependency on Russian oil to about 40% and get the rest from other countries.
While there’s “nothing wrong” with working on greater integration with Russia, this will cover “purely economic” questions and won’t involve the creation of any supranational bodies, Lukashenko told the factory workers.
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