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Russia/Belarus: Putin, Lukashenka Meeting Comes Amid Mounting Tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka are meeting at Putin's holiday retreat in Sochi as tensions between the two countries grow over gas and integration issues. Minsk and Moscow have been sparring with what looks like mutual attempts at blackmail. Some observers say today's summit is a sign tensions may be easing.

Moscow, 15 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka meet today amid mounting tensions between the two countries, underscored recently by Moscow's decision to charge Minsk market prices for gas supplies.

The crisis is such that it has even pushed long-standing talks on integration into the background.

The Russian daily "Vremya Novostey" says the two leaders "won't be up to [talking about] the [Russian-Belarusian] union. They need to get answers from each other on more immediate questions. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is certainly worried about one thing -- Russian gas deliveries. And Vladimir Putin needs to know if Russian interests in Belarus are protected."

The latest development in the spat includes a letter by Lukashenka reportedly pressing claims of up to $1 billion from Russia for losses Belarus would incur if it adopts the Russian ruble as its currency.

According to Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who made the contents of the letter public last night on Russian television, Lukashenka says his government will lose millions in tax revenue because it will have to lower its tax rates to Russian levels.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov also said Minsk has even raised doubts about Russian ownership of some pipelines running through Belarus.

According to Aleksandr Fadeyev, a specialist on Belarusian affairs with the Moscow-based CIS Institute, the crisis is real because Moscow feels Belarus's role as Russia's "transit corridor to Europe" is put at risk.

"It is thanks to the road, rail, and pipeline connections through Belarus that Russia is linked to the European Union. For instance, Belarusian roads transport 70 percent of goods going to and from [Russia to] the European Union. It's a real transit corridor and very important for Russia. So what happens in Belarus is important for Russia in matters of [economic] stability."

Tensions have grown over the past weeks as plans to organize gas cooperation between the two countries failed to materialize.

Last week, Kasyanov backed Russian gas producer Gazprom in its decision to lift an agreement selling Russian natural gas to Minsk at subsidized prices. That means a significant rise in the price for Belarus.

Such favorable conditions were the result of a deal signed in April last year, but as the Russian government implied, Minsk had not respected its part of the deal. According to the agreement, Minsk was expected to create a joint-stock company for transporting gas with Gazprom and selling a share in Beltranshaz. So far no joint-stock company has been created. And Gazprom and Minsk can't agree on the share price for Beltranshaz.

At the same time, another conflict revolves around the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus. While Belarus was expected to introduce the Russian ruble in just over a year -- 1 January 2005 -- Lukashenka has suddenly come up with a list of "conditions," mostly involving Moscow compensating Minsk, as a result of integration. Lukashenka also insisted that a common constitution be drawn up before any real monetary union comes to be.

Fadeyev says, however, that while Belarus is concerned about the cost of adopting the Russian ruble, what really matters to Lukashenka is "political control."

"[The presidential administration] recommended that he sign the basic agreements on going over to the Russian ruble," Fadeyev says. "But he didn't like that. Why? The answer is simple. Any movement toward a unification of the two countries will narrow the powers of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. That's something he doesn't agree to."

However, there are signs the two countries are trying to defuse tensions.

Kasyanov says negotiations over the creation of the joint-stock company for transporting gas will continue, apparently leaving the door open for agreement there.

Also, analysts say Moscow needs Belarus's support at a CIS summit in Sochi later this week to create an open economic zone between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Moscow may also be looking to play the "integration card" with Belarus ahead of elections later this year.

For years, despite growing tensions between Belarus and Russia, official propaganda has focused on the integration of both states in a "union." In fact, the union seems mostly a fiction meant to appeal to public opinion. The idea was launched by former President Boris Yeltsin ahead of 1996 presidential elections as a way to win votes from the Communist Party that was promoting the idea of recreating the old Soviet Union.

Until now, Minsk and Moscow seemed happy to "play" at belonging to a union. It has a president -- former Yeltsin ally Pavel Borodin, who is now running for parliament on a "Eurasian" platform. It also seems to be spending efforts -- and money -- at picking a hymn, as shown by the contests broadcast on Russian television.