Why Russia is cutting off gas supplies to Belarus
Russia is again using gas as a foreign policy tool to alter behavior of its neighbors. It wants Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to join a new customs union championed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
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Experts say the dispute is unlikely to affect downstream customers in Europe – which depends on Russia for more than a quarter of its gas – as previous spats with Russia's neighbor Ukraine have frequently done. Belarussian pipelines carry just 20 percent of Russian exports to Europe and demand is much lower now due to warm summer temperatures.
But the shutdown does reflect ongoing Russian willingness to use energy as a tool of foreign policy, experts say.
Moscow has reportedly been losing patience with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who talks a strong pro-Russian game but actually pursues an independent course that increasingly conflicts with the Kremlin's wishes.
In recent months, Mr. Lukashenko has dug in his heels against joining a Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia customs union being championed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has demanded duty-free Russian oil as the price of further cooperation, and has given refuge to ousted Kyrgyzstan leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, some say against the Kremlin's wishes.
"This gas cutoff is just another stage of the general crisis of relations between Russia and Belarus, and in particular Lukashenko's refusal to sign the customs union agreement with Putin," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, an analyst with Strategia, one of the few independent political think tanks in the Belarussian capital of Minsk. "There will soon be a presidential election campaign in Belarus, and it seems like Putin and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev have given up all hope of coming to terms with Lukashenko."
On Monday, Mr. Medvedev ordered the Kremlin-run gas monopoly, Gazprom, to slash gas deliveries by 15 percent each day until the amount reaches 85 percent of Russian supplies to Belarus's state-run economy, or an amount equal to the $192-million debt claimed by Moscow.
Lukashenko at first offered to cover the debt with farm products and machinery, a suggestion that was rejected out of hand by Medvedev. "Gazprom cannot take pies, butter, cheese, or pancakes or any other form of payment [except cash]. Our Belarusian partners must understand this," Medvedev said.