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Belarus: Has Gas Dispute Put Historic Friendship To An End?

Russia and Belarus have traditionally had close ties (epa) January 5, 2007 -- Belarus this week slapped a duty on transit shipments of Russian crude oil to Europe.

The move is the latest in an escalating row over energy prices that forced Belarus to pay $100 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas -- more than double what it previously paid -- and relinquish a 50-percent stake in its state gas-transit network, Beltranshaz.

The gas price for Belarus is also set to gradually rise to reach European market levels by 2011.

The dispute has shaken the strategic alliance between Russia and Belarus and cast doubt on both sides' commitment to forming a common state.

Widespread Concern

It's no surprise Belarusians are now worried about how their country, highly dependent on cheap Russian energy resources, will cope with the increase.

This man living in Homel, a large city in southeastern Belarus, was among those voicing concern during an informal street poll conducted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"[Life] will definitely change, because our Belarusian goods will no longer be competitive. This will deal a severe blow to Belarus's economy. [The government] has run into a brick wall. The living standards of ordinary people will drop. I'm not sure about leaders, they may be able to grab something for themselves. But ordinary people will definitely lose out."

A second Homel resident says she counts on the government to soften the blow for the population.

"We are counting on our government to help us in some way. I don't think gas prices will increase much for us. If they go up by 30,000 rubles [$14 per year] or so, I think we'll be able to cope. We won't have a square meal, but we won't starve."

Russia-Ukraine Dispute

The gas dispute between Moscow and Minsk bears striking resemblance to the row that erupted between Russia and Ukraine exactly one year ago.

Both Belarus and Ukraine were threatened with New Year's gas shutoffs if they refused a price hike.

In both instances, the threats caused shivers of anxiety among gas consumers in Western Europe. And trade negotiations in both cases were also peppered with angry words.

Proposed Union

There is, however, one crucial difference between the Belarusian and the Ukrainian gas disputes. While the former was widely seen as political retaliation again Ukraine's pro-Western government, this year's conflict pits Russia against a country whose longtime leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has close ties with the Kremlin.

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Belarus has been for Russia a key military ally and a buffer against NATO. In return, Moscow has helped the authoritarian Lukashenka retain his grip on power by providing political support and preferential energy treatment.

The two nations have long talked about forming a common state and have said they will hold referendums on the union this year.

Fractured Alliance

The dispute, however, cast doubt on unification plans.

Andrei Suzdaltsev, a Russian political analyst who lived in Belarus for over a decade, tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Moscow has grown weary of supporting Lukashenka.

"The trust between the elites of both countries has vanished. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is not a person with whom Moscow can sign [integration] agreements or resolve issues," Suzdaltsev says. "With the current leadership in Belarus, the integration project will be gradually demolished. Nobody will hold any [unification] referendums with [this leadership]. The main obstacle to the formation of the union-state is Alyaksandr Lukashenka. This is Moscow's position."

Gazprom's new strategy indeed suggests that Moscow is growing tired of supporting Lukashenka, who has steadfastly refused to grant Russia more control over Belarus's economy.

Lukashenka has also angered Moscow by dragging his feet on the unification project, which could severely undermine his political power.

Russia's gas offensive is therefore widely viewed as an attempt to force Belarus into a merger favorable to Moscow.

Belarusian political analyst Andrey Fyodarau agrees the gas dispute has strong political undertones.

"Moscow has not given up [the idea of political absorption of Belarus]. If it had given it up, it would have announced it. When [Moscow] raises gas prices for Ukraine or Georgia, it doesn't put the issue in an either-or way -- either you are incorporated by Russia or you get expensive gas," Fyodarau says. "Here the issue is put in this way. Therefore, I think that the main reasons here [in the gas-price controversy] is political."

Political commentators are not alone in viewing the current gas dispute between Russia and Belarus as a political standoff.

U.S. Comments

In unusually harsh remarks, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on January 4 accused Russia of using its vast energy resources as a "political lever."

McCormack also slammed Belarusian leadership for re-exporting Russian oil for its personal profit, branding Lukashenka's regime "rotten."

Russia And Belarus

Russia And Belarus

The main Moscow-Minsk railway line(Tass)

TO MERGE OR NOT TO MERGE: For over a decade, Moscow and Minsk have been working on a project to form a single state, the Russia-Belarus Union. However, every time the two countries seem on the verge of making progress, one or the other steps back, leaving the entire effort in doubt.


Putin, Lukashenka Press Ahead With Unification

Has Putin Promised Lukashenka Fair Weather?

Tensions Remain In Putin-Lukashenka Talks


RFE/RL's coverage of Belarus. RFE/RL's coverage of Russia.