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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By late Monday, Belarus' deputy prime minister Vladimir Semashko said the country would try to pay the debt within two weeks, even if it has to borrow the money. But Gazprom indicated that it would keep up the pressure, and re-route European gas supplies through Ukrainian pipelines for the duration of the dispute.Skip to next paragraph
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Analysts say the Ukrainian example clearly illustrates how the Kremlin uses gas to coerce its neighbors. While pro-Western former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was in charge, Russia and Ukraine went through repeated annual "gas wars," and Russia jacked up Ukraine's energy prices to the same rates paid by Western European customers.
But since a Moscow-friendly leader, Viktor Yanukovich, was elected in February, Russia has made a series of sweetheart deals with Kiev, including granting a 30 percent discount on gas prices in return for Russia's continued use of a naval base on the Crimean peninsula.
"Russia found it easy to lower Ukraine's gas bill, once it saw political reasons to do so," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center of Political Technologies in Moscow. "This dispute with Belarus is all about negotiations over the customs union project, and other political issues. Moscow has not been happy with Lukashenko's flirting with the West, or his refusal to grant diplomatic recognition to [the Russian-sponsored Georgian breakaway statelets of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he says.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm director who has often been slammed as "Europe's last dictator," was freely elected in 1994 but has since held on to power by suppressing opposition and allegedly rigging elections. He recently told journalists that he will run for a fourth term of office, in polls to be held early next year.
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