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Disadvantage Lukashenka, As Gas-Price Talks Get Under Way In Moscow

Russia's Dmitry Medvedev (right) greets Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the Kremlin
(RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka is not an official who is noted for his humility.

But as the Belarusian president arrives for talks on the price of Russian gas shipments in 2009, analysts in Minsk and Moscow alike say he is aware that he is headed to Russia hat in hand -- and desperate for a sign of financial support from his powerful neighbor.

Minsk-based expert Andrey Fyodarau tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Lukashenka's trip, though officially about gas prices, will really be an attempt to plea for help fighting the mounting financial crisis facing his country

"First of all, it's a consequence of the fairly bad economic situation in our country. There's been a very big drop in productivity. And the population is beginning to feel the effects of this already. Utility fees are expected to rise significantly," Fyodarau says.

"It's no secret that Belarus is very dependent on Russia and has very close economic ties with it," he adds. "That's why I think the Belarusian leadership is going to try to use this visit to solve its economic problems."

Belarus in the past few days has asked nearly everyone for a loan. Lukashenka, overlooking temporarily his antipathy toward the United States, asked Washington for a loan of $5 billion. He has also expressed hope the International Monetary Fund will grant his country a $2 billion loan. And Minsk has reportedly asked Moscow for a $3 billion loan, despite having already received $2 billion from Russia to help stabilize the sagging Belarusian economy.

That loan will be just one of the issues on the table as Lukashenka and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sit down to negotiate.

Topping the official agenda is the price of gas. Belarus currently pays a bargain rate of just $128 per thousand cubic meters -- about three time less than the standard rate Europe is paying for the same gas. Belarusian officials have suggested they would accept a raise to $140 or even $160 per thousand cubic meters. But Moscow has countered it may raise the price as high as $240, and certainly no lower than $200.

Hat In Hand

Such a hike could prove disastrous for Belarus, which has already spent its gold reserves in an effort to bolster the Belarusian ruble.

Andrei Suzdaltsev, a Russian political analyst who was deported from Belarus in 2006, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that Lukashenka may attempt to play on traditional "brotherly feelings" between the ethnically close countries in his talks with the Kremlin.

"He's saying: 'We need to get out of this crisis together, and then later we'll do the math. That is, you give us something to start, and then later we'll figure out the details.' That's what he's saying," Suzdaltsev says.

"He's going in hopes of getting enormous financial support and help. The gas factor is only one of these considerations. Of course, right now he's throwing into the basket all the dusty arguments he's been collecting over the past few years," he adds

"But will Moscow meet him on this? You have to consider that the situation in Russia is also difficult. They're going through their gold reserves very quickly, there are problems with their falling market, with the falling production, and a heap of other problems. And Russia isn't helping anyone," Suzdaltsev says. "Moreover, it's already given $2 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $2 billion to Belarus. I don't think that it's possible to expect more."

Minsk has few bargaining chips when it comes to negotiating with Moscow. The Kremlin, however, has long set its sights on owning a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-transit system, Beltranshaz, and has often used the threat of a sharp hike in gas prices to pressure Belarus on that point.

An article in today's issue of Russia's "Kommersant" daily cites unnamed sources as saying a Beltranshaz deal may be part of the negotiations.

Political Support

Then there is the political card. Ilya Rassolov, an expert on Russian-Belarusian relations, says Lukashenka may finally be forced to deliver on his promise to recognize Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"The price of gas is changing for everyone, and it will change even for Belarus. But for Belarus the situation looks more critical, because the crisis will be felt immediately in the monetary system and in the income of citizens," Rassolov says.

"In my opinion, substantial cutbacks and firings are coming, just as we've seen in Russia. Then there's also the possibility of using the political agenda for leverage," he adds. "I think the questions about Lukashenka's promise to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia will come up."

Moscow quickly recognized the two territories, which declared independence in the weeks following Russia's war in Georgia in August. So far, however, only one country, Nicaragua, has followed suit. Recognition from Minsk, while hardly speeding the independence question to international legitimacy, would go some way in helping Belarus stay in Moscow's good graces.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report. With agency reports