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Alyaksandr Kazulin (file photo) (RFE/RL)
On 8 January, RFE/RL's Belarus Service held a roundtable discussion on Russian gas supplies with five presidential candidates. The participants in the discussion were: Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party; Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich; Zyanon Paznyak, the exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party; and former General Valery Fralou. The following is selected excerpts of the transcript.
RFE/RL: For you as presidential candidates, what lessons do you take from the Russian gas row with Ukraine?
Zyanon Paznyak: We have possibilities [to affect Russia] that Ukrainians lack. Namely those which are provided by interdependency between Belarus and Russia. I have in mind [Russian] military bases, which exist in Belarus practically free of charge and their price should be included into the price [Belarus pays] for gas. However, Belarus is losing this game. Very cheap and practically free-of-charge transit should also be included into the price and there are some other possibilities, which Ukraine lacks. However, Ukraine has one very important resource -- it has a national government and, largely because of this powerful and critical resource, it was easy for Ukrainians to stand up to this insolent and silly [Russian] blackmail and to win. We do not have such a resource and our first aim is to acquire such a resource. The Belarusian problem is that we have a pro-Moscow government and this is the biggest curse for the Belarusian people.
Syarhey Haydukevich: I don't think that [the gas crisis] threatens Belarus in the upcoming decade. My opinion is based on facts. I often visit Russia and have serious meetings there. I can make one point: Belarus will not find itself in the Ukrainian situation because Belarusian interests are based on other grounds than Ukraine's. It is completely not objective to say, as Ukrainians do, that Russia wants to increase the gas price because Ukraine seeks to join NATO. I do not think that Ukraine did the right thing -- you should not forget that you cannot choose neighbors and should be friends with your neighbors. In this sense [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yushchenko has disappointed me.
Alyaksandr Kazulin: We can make several conclusions and I think that all of them are evident. Anything that comes for free has strings attached. We should understand that nothing is ever for free. Secondly, to deal with any crisis we need to have a steady legal base. Agreements, which can be interpreted in different ways, earlier or later, end in misunderstandings and provoke conflicts as a result. That's what we have seen. If Yushchenko fulfilled the obligations taken by the former government the price would have been different from the one we have now. I should say that I do not fully support this quick rise to $230, but Russia offered $160 to Ukraine and Ukraine refused -- and did it in a bad way. You should not behave this way with a great country.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich: I think that Russia has demonstrated once more that it seeks obedience from its neighbors, first of all from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Concerning gas prices, the main lesson for us is that we should be ready for the new prices, especially bearing in mind that in the near future Russia will join the World Trade Organization and will also have to increase gas prices for us. Unfortunately, the Belarusian economy is not ready for that.
Valery Fralou: I do not think that the Belarusian authorities are eager to learn lessons from the crisis or learn any economic lessons as their only purpose is to stick to power. Concerning economists, they have learned their lesson long ago -- our economy, which is totally dependent on cheap energy, is not able to adapt to free market conditions. It only makes the situation, which exists in Belarus, worse. The economy is being ignored by politicians who only have one aim -- staying in power.
RFE/RL: As potential candidates, what gas prices would you agree with Russia?
Kazulin: I can guarantee that the price for gas would be as low as possible and would not increase as rapidly as in Ukraine. Of course, we all understand that, as world gas prices go up, prices in Russia will also increase. Of course they will go up in Belarus, too. It is clear that we should plan our politics according to world tendencies. But it is clear that the gas price in Belarus will not be so high....
Milinkevich: I was not sitting at the negotiating table and it is very difficult for me to talk about the prices. But of course the prices should not be around $200. The prices should go up gradually. Gas prices will reach world levels in a year or a year and a half, but moving to the world prices now will mean a collapse for the Belarusian economy. The new Belarusian authorities will be better partners for Russia. I think that the new Belarusian authorities will show Russia that it is easier to deal with them, that it is possible to talk openly about everything and sign new agreements. But in no way will we cancel old agreements. We will honor them until they expire. We will fulfill those obligations, which Belarus is currently taking, though sometimes they are unfavorable.
Fralou: I think it will be very difficult to build new economic relations with Russia keeping in mind that we depend from Russia very much. Now I am not ready to give the price, which we might be able to agree during the negotiations. Probably we should find some other means, which would allow the Belarusian economy to stay aloof with prices going up considerably.
Paznyak: The price of gas, which is agreed between Minsk and Moscow, is advantageous for Russia. Otherwise, this price wouldn't exist. It is useful for them not only politically but also economically. By the way, the world price is neither $160 [per 1,000 cubic meters] nor $230 dollars -- these figures reflect the price of blackmail. If the French and Germans are getting the gas for $160, in our case, one should remember the 200 kilometers distance [to transport the gas to Belarus.] The price of the gas for Belarus, bearing in mind the proximity, shouldn't be higher that $80. The price of the Russian military bases in Belarus should also affect the price Belarus pays for gas.
Haydukevich: Every candidate should explain to the people, to pensioners, what prices we will have to pay for the Russian natural resources. The Belarusian economy depends on that. I have no doubt that the gas prices will not go up if I am elected the president of Belarus. For me personally it is clear. Gas prices do not belong to the sphere of economics but to politics. If for instance Syarhey Haydukevich would declare that he wants to be a strong ally of the EU; if he and his entourage would start making declarations that irritate the neighbors, I have no doubt that the attitude towards me will be completely market based. In this sense I completely support [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I completely support President Putin in the row with Ukraine.