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Belarus: Has Putin Promised Lukashenka Fair Weather?

Lukashenka (left) and Putin 8 April 2005 -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held four hours of talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 4 April.

The meeting did not break their protracted stalemate over how to proceed with mutual integration. But the meeting has proven auspicious for Lukashenka, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as Belarusian president on the heels of a controversial referendum in October that lifted the constitutional two-term limit on the presidents.

Putin appears to have accepted -- at least indirectly -- the prospect of Lukashenka remaining in power in Belarus beyond 2006.

"I want to publicly thank Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] and the entire Foreign Ministry of Russia for the unprecedented support they are rendering us in the international arena," Lukashenka told journalists in Sochi. Lukashenka was presumably referring to the Kremlin's silent acceptance of the results of the 2004 constitutional referendum, which was widely seen by international observers as heavily manipulated and rigged by the authorities in favor of lifting the term limit. Lukashenka might also have been referring to Russia and some other countries' success in blocking a critical resolution on Belarus's human rights record by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Gas Agreement

However, the main reason for Lukashenka's gratitude would seem to be Putin's pledge that Russian gas prices for Belarus in 2006 will remain at last year's level. Gazprom now supplies natural gas to Belarus at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters. In return, Lukashenka pledged to leave gas-transit fees for Russia at 2005 levels. The Belarusian government currently collects $0.75 in transit fees per 1,000 cubic meters for every 100 kilometers of gas pipelined via Belarus through the state-controlled Beltranshaz's network and $0.46 for gas transported by the Yamal-Europe pipeline that is owned by Gazprom.
Putin appears to have accepted -- at least indirectly -- the prospect of Lukashenka remaining in power in Belarus beyond 2006.

The Belarusian president also promised to provide tax relief and to promptly lease land plots to Gazprom for building gas-compression stations and the second line of the Yamal-Europe pipeline in Belarus.

Putin's pledge to supply gas to Belarus in 2006 at the unchanged price came after Gazprom announced last month that it would surely increase prices for gas deliveries to Belarus and to Russian consumers in 2006. If Gazprom remains even partly true to its word -- and gas prices for consumers in Smolensk Oblast are actually higher than in adjacent Belarus in 2006 -- then Putin's "gas gift" to Lukashenka could mean just one thing: that the Kremlin wants badly for the Belarusian president to stay in power. Unchanged Russian gas prices make it easier for Lukashenka to maintain economic stability and ward off potential unrest over economic hardship ahead of the presidential election.

Kremlin Strategy

Putin's decision comes as little surprise. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2002 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 -- which seem to have put both countries on an unwavering course of integration with the West -- Putin might want to safeguard at least one post-Soviet ally in Russia's sphere of political and economic leverage. And Lukashenka has remained a loyal political ally of Russia's since his presidential inauguration in 1994. Therefore, the Kremlin might well have decided to place its bet on Lukashenka once again, despite his unseemly antics in international politics and a miserable human rights record at home.

Lukashenka also told journalists after the Sochi meeting that he and Putin agreed to prevent a "negative impact on mutual trade" in the event that Russia joins the World Trade Organization (WTO). Lukashenka added that Moscow and Minsk will prepare a necessary document on this issue. Such a document could surely be regarded as a successful attempt by Minsk to protect itself against the loss of preferential treatment in trade with Russia once that country joins the WTO (most certainly sooner than Belarus). This concession appears to be another indicator that Moscow is doing its best to please Lukashenka and prevent any political storms on his course in 2006.

It is also notable that the issue of gas deliveries to Belarus in 2006 was not linked by Moscow -- as happened many times in the past -- to Belarus's consent to selling a 50-percent stake in national gas transporter Beltranshaz. There also were no visible signs of the Kremlin pressuring Belarus into adopting the Russian ruble as its currency in 2006. Putin said in Sochi that the idea of a single currency for Belarus and Russian "has not died," but he declined to say when any progress in this sphere could be expected. Lukashenka has objected for years to Russia exercising full control over the printing of money in such a currency union, and he seems to have prevailed, at least for the time being.

Lukashenka is acutely aware that, since Viktor Yushchenko came to power in Ukraine and the opposition in Kyrgyzstan ousted pro-Moscow President Askar Akaev, he has every chance to do a political deal with the Kremlin and secure himself another "elegant victory" in 2006. And he is doing so with great alacrity.

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