Belarus' president says merger with Russia would lead to violence worse than in Chechnya

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus Belarus' authoritarian president railed Friday against a proposed merger with Russia, warning it could lead to violence and disorder worse than in Russia's restive Chechnya region.

Moscow and Minsk signed a union treaty in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties between Russia and Belarus, but stopped short of creating a single state.

The Kremlin, increasingly impatient about subsidizing Belarus' Soviet-style economy with cheap gas, has since proposed that Belarus be absorbed into Russia.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has vehemently opposed such a union, and during a 4 1/2-hour news conference Friday reiterated that stance.

"Even (Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin didn't go as far as that ... I don't want to be the first and the last Belarusian president," Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko, who has sought to cast Belarus as an oasis of calm amid other ex-Soviet nations in turmoil, warned his country of 10 million that its incorporation into Russia could trigger chaos and even fighting.

"As soon as Belarus becomes part of Russia, it'll be worse here than in Chechnya," he said. "We'll have people coming in from Georgia, from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries. They are ready today to come with weapons."

Lukashenko also touched on the gas price negotiations, which have become increasingly strained amid a proposal by Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom to increase prices fourfold.

The price increase would initially be offset by the acquisition of Belarusian industrial assets, in particular a 50 percent stake in national gas transport company Beltransgaz, Gazprom officials have said, noting that such an arrangement would give Minsk time to reconfigure its economy to better handle the higher gas prices within a few years.

Lukashenko slammed the proposed hike as a "clear break in all relations. Particularly economic."

Belarus now buys its gas from Russia at US$46.68 (36.87) per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom wants to charge US$200 (158) per 1,000 cubic meters, company spokesman Igor Volobuyev said Friday. Economists warned that such a high increase could hobble Belarus' industries.

Lukashenko warned Russia "you will lose your last ally, you will simply disgrace yourselves" if the increase is put into effect. "Belarus has been offered a higher price than Germany - we will insist on the original price."

Lukashenko said he was not against the sale of the Beltransgaz shares, but insisted Gazprom should buy them at a fair market price - suggesting the gas giant was undervaluing the stake.

Late last year, Russia re-negotiated natural gas contracts with several former Soviet republics, bringing them closer to European prices, which have soared in line with record oil prices.

Russia's move to sharply increase gas prices for Ukraine in January was widely seen as politically motivated Kremlin pressure on Ukraine's new, Western-leaning government before March parliamentary elections.