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Despite its insistence on remaining the last dictatorship of Europe and a lackey of Russia, Belarus has found out the limits of friendship with Vladimir Putin. It turns out that Putin wants to stop charging the Belarussians "friend" rates for natural gas, charging them double now and forcing them to give half of its revenue for pipeline services to the Russians (via The Florida Masochist):
Residents of Belarus's capital stocked up on warm clothes and electric heaters as fears rose Tuesday that Russia would soon cut off the natural gas supply on which the country depends.
Russia says Belarus must pay more than twice as much for gas next year -- and even more later -- and turn over a half-share in its pipeline system, a major transit route to Europe, if it wants to avoid a New Year's gas shutoff. ...
The dispute strongly echoes last year's crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which briefly disrupted supplies of Russian gas to Western Europe. But in that case, Russia's price demand was seen as political pressure against a Western-leaning government; this time it is against a country whose longtime leader has close ties with Moscow.
Belarusan opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich suggested Gazprom's demands were aimed at forcing President Alexander Lukashenko to cede control over the pipeline network and other attributes of sovereignty in exchange for continued Russian support for his authoritarian regime.
"Through energy pressure, the Kremlin is trying to force Lukashenko to integrate according to the Russian scenario, which is extremely dangerous for Belarus," Milinkevich said.
The last we heard from this former Soviet republic on Russia's western border was this spring, when Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko jailed his opposition for "unsanctioned" protests. Alexander Milinkevich had led the rally to highlight oppression on Europe's doorstep, as well as to urge Belarus to leave the Russian orbit and align itself with the freedom of the West in Europe. Belarus' large Polish contingent wants closer relations with Poland as well.
Lukashenko did Putin's bidding, stopping a repeat of the Orange Revolution that occurred in neighboring Ukraine last year. His reward for his loyalty to the growing Putin empire? A takeover of Belarussian energy transfers that bears more resemblance to a bust-out on The Sopranos. Not only does Putin want to charge Belarus essentially what he charges Ukraine for their energy, but he wants a large piece of the little action Belarus gets from having Russia's pipeline to Europe run through their country.
This is a ballsy move for Putin. Lukashenko might well start looking to better-deal Russia by looking westward for assistance, although it's not likely. Europe cannot supply Belarus with energy, considering that they get it from Russia through Belarus now. If Belarus and Ukraine acted in concert to shut down Russian exports to Russia, however, they would get everyone's attention very quickly -- but they couldn't survive the winter with an energy boycott in place.
Putin has Lukashenko where he wants him, for the moment at least. However, Lukashenko now knows that kissing Putin's rear gets him zero discount on goods and services and Putin's hand thrust deep within Lukashenko's pocket. If Lukashenko and Europe can find another distribution channel for energy, Lukashenko might rethink the relationship between Minsk and Moscow -- or Belarussians might find someone who will.Sphere It View blog reactions
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