A seasonal chill

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Monday, January 11, 2010

IF IT'S JANUARY, it seems, Russia must be involved in a politically motivated dispute over energy supplies with one of its neighbors. This time it's Belarus, the former Soviet republic that used to be called Europe's last dictatorship, until Russia itself headed back in that direction. Strongman Alexander Lukashenko still rules in Minsk, but in the past couple of years he's taken several steps toward shaking off the tutelage he once accepted from Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. At the urging of Western governments, Belarus released a few political prisoners and in turn was allowed to join the European Union's Eastern Partnership program. Mr. Lukashenko has also embarrassed Mr. Putin by refusing to recognize the two puppet states that Moscow is backing in Georgia.

No wonder, then, that as this winter gets cold Mr. Putin has singled out Belarus for punishment. On Jan. 1 Russia cut off part of its supplies of oil to the country, once again raising alarms in Western Europe, which receives large quantities of Russian oil through a pipeline that transits Belarus. The supplies resumed after a couple of days, but Mr. Putin continues to insist that Belarus accept a new supply deal that could cost it as much as $5 billion, or about 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

Of course, Mr. Putin and his spokesmen insist that this is merely a commercial dispute that involves ending Russian subsidies. That's also what they said last January, when Russia shut down gas supplies to Ukraine and then to all of Europe; and in January 2007, when the pipeline to Belarus was closed down; and in January 2006, when there was a previous interruption in gas supplies to Ukraine. Last week, as he did last year, Mr. Putin showily summoned a minister to publicly "report" to him on the conflict -- so there would be no mistake about who in Moscow was managing the matter.

Mr. Putin hasn't given up his dream of restoring Moscow's dominion over the countries of the former Soviet Union -- though, intriguingly, the man he installed as Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, recently denounced what he called "chaotic" foreign policies "dictated by nostalgia and prejudice." For the most part, the heavy-handed tactics have badly backfired. Ukraine may soon elect a president more to Moscow's liking, but it remains an independent democracy. Meanwhile, not just Belarus but also countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia and even Turkmenistan are scrambling to make friends with the West or with China.

For their part, Western European countries that depend on Russia for energy supplies have just gotten their annual winter wake-up call. Thirty-five percent of Germany's oil imports flow through the Belarus pipeline. Anyone in the German government who still believes Russia can be counted on for those supplies must spend January in the tropics.


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