Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko walk before a meeting of the Supreme…
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko walk before a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dec. 20, 2019.

MOSCOW - The presidents of Belarus and Russia met Friday to discuss deeper economic ties between the two close allies amid mounting concerns in Minsk that Moscow ultimately wants to subdue its neighbor.

The meeting in St. Petersburg is the second encounter between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko this month.

Greeting Lukashenko at the start of Friday's talks, Putin said some progress on resolving outstanding issues has been made.

But Russia's Economics Minister Maxim Oreshkin said after the talks that the parties have failed to resolve the key differences over oil and gas.

Demonstrators protest closer integration with Russia, which protesters fear could erode the post-Soviet independence of Belarus, in downtown in Minsk, Belarus, Dec. 20, 2019.

The negotiations have triggered opposition rallies in Belarus, where many fear that closer ties with Russia could weaken Belarus' independence. Another protest is scheduled for Friday evening.

Putin, who marks two decades in power later this month, remained coy about his political future after his current term ends in 2024.

He dodged a question Thursday if he could potentially extend his rule by shifting into a new governing position to become the head of a union between Russia and Belarus.

Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1997 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of forming a single nation.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter-century with little tolerance for dissent, relies on cheap Russian energy and loans to shore up his country's Soviet-style economy.

Russian pressure

The Kremlin has recently raised pressure on Belarus, increasing energy prices and cutting subsidies. Russian officials say Minsk should accept closer economic integration if it wants to benefit from lower energy prices.

In an apparent bid to win concessions, Lukashenko on Friday emphasized Belarus' role as Russia's military ally and security partner, an argument he has used repeatedly in the past to get more subsidies from Moscow.

"We have created a single defense space and our security agencies gave worked in close contact," Lukashenko told Putin at the start of their talks.

But the Russian president has signaled that such tactics won't work. He argued that Belarus can't get Russia's domestic prices for its oil and gas unless it agrees to closely coordinate economic and financial policies and create interstate structures.

"It's a huge work, and it can be done only if there is a political will shared by both sides," Putin said at his annual news conference Thursday.