Lukashenko's blunders: Too late for friendship with Yushchenko, too soon for quarrel with Russia

The Russian-Ukrainian agreement made public on Monday has dramatically changed the balance in the oil and gas intrigue involving Russia, the European Union and transit countries, primarily Ukraine and Belarus, since the early 1990s. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Russia intends to make Ukraine the main transit route for its oil and gas.

Meanwhile, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine's opposition forces are trying to establish a new "union of transit countries," pledging to strengthen interaction between ideologically incompatible partners, Ukraine's nationalist and pro-Western opposition and Lukashenko, whose career is based on nostalgia for the former Soviet Union.

The new lineup of forces started developing long ago. Western leaders in 2005 stopped wondering at the growing closeness between their favorite post-Soviet leader, Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko, and Lukashenko, denounced in the Western press as "Europe's last dictator."

Alliances and sympathies in the oil and gas industry looked unchanged since the early 1990s. Trying to restart the oil and gas supply system that worked without interruption during the Soviet period and to satisfy the majority of people who regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia offered an integration project to Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukraine was happy to accept Russia's generous offers made within the framework of the integration project, but left President Boris Yeltsin and subsequent Russian leaders in the lurch when it was supposed to take practical action, doing nothing to bring the two countries closer together. It also siphoned off gas from the pipeline running from Russia to Europe.

Belarus was initially more honest, even though gas conflicts have marred bilateral relations since the early 1990s and become chronic since 2004. It never resorted to barefaced theft of the fuel. But Lukashenko has now decided to change his allegiance, at least where it comes to oil and gas.

Lukashenko's latest and previous statements point to his intention. He said several years ago: "There are 55 million of us, from the Baltic to the Black Sea."

By "us" he clearly meant Ukraine and Belarus as the transit routes for Russian oil and gas. The phrase probably also includes Lithuania, which receives Russian gas via Belarus and could become one more link in the "transit fence" stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic Coast.

Political history enthusiasts might describe the territory as the Grand Duchy (principality) of Lithuania and part of the "cordon sanitaire" (quarantine line) created around Soviet Russia in 1919.

His statements in the last few days clearly show that Lukashenko is deliberately provoking a conflict with Russia. He believes that Russia remains an empire, because "imperial thinking boils down to snatching, pushing back, bending, squeezing and strangling." Indeed, one does not speak about allies in such aggressive terms.

The Belarusian president has also appealed to his EU "friends": "Europe has seen once again that it should be more energetic in its search for alternative hydrocarbon supply routes, and that it cannot rely on Russia."

After making that statement, which is worthy of other Russian "friends" such as Brzezinski and Kaczynski, Lukashenko points to Russia's allegedly mercantile motives: "They are hungry for non-privatized state property in Belarus, which they want to get cheaply."

He also sees criminal reasons behind Russia's actions, claiming that the gas conflict was designed to complicate the 2011 elections in Belarus because "they don't like Lukashenko who is upholding [Belarus's] independence too vigorously."

Interference in elections in a sovereign state is considered a crime in many countries, including Belarus.

Lukashenko's intentions are clear, but they may backfire. Several critically important innovations are planned in Belarus in early July. For example, the new rules for shipping freight across the national border within the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus will come into force on July 1. The Belarusian parliament will also hear a bill allowing the reincorporation of oil pipelines as joint-stock companies and their privatization, including the Druzhba pipeline in the Gomel Region, which pumps about 70 million metric tons of Russian oil per year (1.4 million bpd).

Will Russian companies buy property in a country where they are denounced as "usurpers" and "enemies of state sovereignty"? Besides, Russia is building an alternative Baltic pipeline system, BPS-2, and Ukraine is prepared to transit more Russian oil and gas to the EU.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Monday during his visit to Moscow that Ukraine was ready to transit an additional 15-30 billion cubic meters (1.06 trillion cu f) of natural gas a year. Thirty billion cubic meters is the designed capacity of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline running through Belarus.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said after his meeting with Azarov that Russia might export from 9 to 27 million metric tons (198.45 million bbl) of oil through Ukraine's port of Yuzhny.

In these circumstances, Russia does not need to buy the Belarusian gas transportation company Beltransgaz or oil pipelines.

Lukashenko has made his move too late. Several years ago, when Ukraine's anti-Russian president Yushchenko was in office, Russia was interested in Beltransgaz and Belarusian oil pipelines and would have paid a good price for them, and Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko would have gladly echoed Lukashenko's anti-Russian statements.

But Ukraine's current government is more reasonable, at least in word. Besides, there are fewer than 55 million anti-Russian people "from sea to sea" in Belarus and Ukraine. Lukashenko has miscalculated.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich)


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