Russia Threatens Gas Shut-Off in Belarus

By YURAS KARMANAU
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 4:54 PM

MINSK, Belarus -- Residents of Belarus' capital stocked up on warm clothes and electric heaters as fears rose Tuesday that Russia is about to cut off the natural gas 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 shut-off.

The dispute bears strong 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 with Moscow.

Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich suggested Gazprom's demands 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 told The Associated Press.

Anna Kuprilko, a 48-year-old tractor factory worker whose sister lives in Ukraine, was among those shopping for a heater Tuesday.

"My sister told me about Ukraine's experience, and I want to keep myself secure," she said. "My family is prepared for the worst."

Talks Tuesday between Belarus and Russia failed to resolve the issue and a senior official of Russia's natural gas monopoly 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," Gazprom's export division chief Alexander Medvedev said.

Lukashenko said the talks on Russian supplies were "very difficult" and 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 transit Belarus. Russian gas provides a quarter of Europe's consumption.


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