In his first trip abroad since taking office, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed solidarity with Belarus, distancing himself from the West. Putin is to visit Berlin and Paris, where Syria is to top the agenda.
Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the former Soviet state of Belarus new loans and solidarity in the face of Western sanctions, during the first leg of a European tour that will also take him to Germany and France on Friday.
Belarus is currently battling one of its worst economic crises since it won independence from the former Soviet Union and has become reliant on Russian aid money to say afloat. Putin announced that Minsk would receive the third installment of a $3 billion (2.4 billion euro) loan from last year.
Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko also discussed plans to construct a nuclear power plant in the country, the first since the 1986 Chernobyl accident in neighboring Ukraine.
"The very fact that my first foreign visit to brotherly Belarus certainly reflects the special nature of our relationship," Putin said. The Russian president skipped the Group of Eight (G8) summit in the United States last May, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead.
Belarus, dubbed by Washington as "the last dictatorship in Europe," currently faces EU and US sanctions for Lukashenko's crackdown on anti-government protesters. The EU withdrew its ambassadors from Minsk in February over human rights abuses.
Moscow and Minsk have formed what they call a Union State and are also constructing a common economic area with the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
"Russia and Belarus will coordinate our efforts to counter attempts to interfere in the international affairs of the Union State and apply pressure through restrictive measures and sanctions," Putin and Lukashenko said in a joint release on Thursday.
Berlin, Paris talks
Putin is set to move on to Berlin and Paris on Friday, where he will hold bilateral talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. Syria is likely to be high on the agenda, with calls for taking a tougher stance against President Bashar al-Assad after the massacre of 108 people in the city of Houla last week.
Although German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wrote in the daily Die Welt that there was no reason to speculate about military intervention at this point, President Hollande said on French television that military action was possible if there was a UN mandate.
China and Russia have twice vetoed UN resolutions that would have condemned the Assad regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow supports UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, not the Assad regime.
"I will talk about it (Syria) with President Putin when he comes to Paris on Friday," Hollande said. "He, along with China, has been the most reluctant on the questions of sanctions."
"And we must convince them that it is not possible to allow the Assad regime to massacre its own people," the French president added.
slk/ccp (AFP, Reuters)