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 shut-off.
The dispute bears loud echoes of last year's crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which caused ripples of concern in Western Europe, whose supplies of Russian gas were briefly disrupted.
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 to Moscow.
Alexander Milinkevich, a Belarussian opposition leader, suggested the demands of Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, are 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.
Anna Kuprilko, a 48-year-old tractor factory worker whose sister lives in Ukraine, was among those shopping for a heater yesterday. "My sister told me about Ukraine's experience, and I want to keep myself secure," she said.
Talks yesterday between Belarus and Russia failed to resolve the issue, and a senior official of Gazprom said a cutoff was certain without an agreement.
"In the absence of a contract, there is not and cannot be a basis for the delivery of gas to any country or any consumer in the world," said Gazprom's export division chief, Alexander Medvedev .
Lukashenko said the talks on Russian supplies were "very difficult," and he urged energy saving. "In the conditions of pressure on Belarus one must know how to live within one's means and economize, especially on energy," he said.
Medvedev said a shut-off would not affect the 30 percent of Russian gas deliveries to Europe that go through Belarus. Russian gas provides a quarter of Europe's consumption.
Much of the Russian gas destined for Poland and Germany, among other countries, goes through a pipeline that is already owned by Gazprom but is under the day-to-day control of the Belarussian pipeline network, Beltransgaz.
"The issues of transit and supplies are not linked and will not be linked," Medvedev said. But he also raised the possibility that Belarus would seek to siphon gas meant for European customers, saying that gas "will be delivered to the Russia-Belarus border. How the Belarussians will conduct themselves I don't want to guess, but I hope it won't come to that."
The price dispute with Ukraine in early 2006 resulted in temporary supply reductions to European customers, raising doubts about Russia's reliability.
Medvedev said Gazprom had scrapped its initial demand that Belarus begin paying $200 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2007. Under what he called a final offer, Belarus would pay $105 next year -- well below world market prices, but more than twice the $47 it now pays.
The increasing price would be a severe blow to Belarus's Soviet-style state-run industries, whose financial health -- and, in turn, a portion of Lukashenko's popularity -- depends on inexpensive gas.
Russia had supplied gas to former Soviet states at below-market prices for years after the 1991 Soviet collapse, but now wants to sell all its gas at world prices.
Belarus, under the authoritarian Lukashenko, has been one of Russia's closest allies in the region. The countries signed a loose union treaty in the mid-1990s, and no visas are needed for land travel between them.
Russia has supported Lukashenko in the face of severe Western criticism, but it has appeared uneasy over his heavy-handed suppression of opposition and irritated at his insistence that small and poor Belarus can be unified with Russia only on an equal basis.
Relations have been tense under Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, who angered Lukashenko by floating an integration plan under which Belarus would essentially become a Russian province.
Source: Boston Globe