Energy dispute could disrupt Russia-Belarus ties

By Nick Kingsley

As talks take place in Moscow about Gazprom's demands on Belarus for market-driven pricing of gas imports, reports suggest that the dispute could weaken the hitherto close ties between the two countries.

The wrangling over access to gas pipelines and pricing of imports to Belarus threatens to spill over into a wider political argument along the lines of the earlier Russia-Ukraine conflagration.

However in Belarus's case, as Radio Free Europe (RFE) reports, there is a key difference, in that it has long been perceived as an ally to Russia, and is something of a pariah state under the autocratic rule of Aleksandar Lukashenko. Therefore, unlike increasingly westernized Ukraine, it will have few allies to turn to in the face of Russian gas price hikes.

Gazprom - which itself has been criticized for acting as though it is a formal foreign policy tool of the Kremlin - is demanding control over the vital transit pipelines that pass through Belarus on their way to the west. It seems that Moscow prizes this access more than it values the political allegiance of a potentially-embarrassing satellite state, as it is prepared to axe the subsidies it offers on gas if Belarus does not give ground over the gas network.

RFE reports that Gazprom is aiming for a monopoly over gas export routes to the west - something evidenced by its trenchant refusal to accept EU demands that it open up access to its pipelines to other companies.

All of which leaves Minsk in a tricky position. The Interfax news agency reported on June 2 that Belarus's prime minister Sergei Sidorsky told parliament that a joint venture partnership between the Belarusian gas transit company and Gazprom would in all likelihood be established during 2006.

"One can expect a joint venture or some other structure to be established this year," he was quoted as saying.