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Belarus leader says Russia insists on merging the two states

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FILE – In this Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko take a break during a match of the Night Hockey League teams in Rosa Khutor in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Lukashenko on Friday, Feb. 14 says Russia insisted on merging the two states during last week’s talks on further integrating the countries’ economies. He says “this isn’t integration, it’s incorporation.” Tension has been running high between the neighboring ex-Soviet states for several months now. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The president of Belarus said Friday that Russia insisted on merging the two states during last week’s talks on further integrating the countries’ economies.

“They understand integration as swallowing up Belarus. This isn’t integration. It’s incorporation. I will never go for this,” President Alexander Lukashenko said during a visit to a paper plant in southeastern Belarus.

“I will always fight for our land to remain sovereign and independent. Your first president that you once elected will never be the last,” he added.

Tension has been running high between the neighboring ex-Soviet states for several months now. As negotiations on closer ties stalled, Russia halted oil supplies to Belarus and Lukashenko repeatedly accused the Kremlin of pushing for a merger of the two countries.

Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down last Friday for yet another round of talks in Sochi, but failed to reach an agreement.

Merging with Belarus is seen by many as a strategy for Putin to stay in power well past the legally mandated end of his presidential term in 2024 by becoming the head of a new state.

As Lukashenko has resisted the integration effort, the Kremlin has increased pressure by halting oil supplies to Belarus, which relies on Russia for more than 80% of its energy needs.

Lukashenko has since vowed to find alternative oil suppliers and boasted about warming ties with the West in an apparent bid to win concessions from Russia. So far Belarus has been able to secure a shipment of oil from Norway and is negotiating supplies from Kazakhstan.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than two decades and is up for re-election this year, doesn’t want to become a governor in a single state with Russia, Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky told The Associated Press.

“The Kremlin has so far failed to scare Minsk by cutting subsidies ahead of the presidential race in Belarus,” Klaskovsky said.

Lukashenko said Friday that talks on closer ties between Russia and Belarus would continue, but only “the questions of integrating economies” would be on the table.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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