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Russia and Belarus: friends who fell out

Latest update : 2008-01-15

The energy trade dispute threatens a decade of negotiations between Belarus and Russia aimed at a joint state.


MOSCOW - So much for the "friendship" pipeline -- an oil transit dispute between Russia and Belarus indicates that a decade of Soviet-style integration between the two neighbours was just a facade, analysts said Monday.

No one was surprised when Russia fought bruising trade battles last year against Ukraine and Georgia, two countries with pro-Western leaders who want to join NATO and the European Union.

Belarus and Russia, though, have spent a decade negotiating a joint state, a project widely seen as a way to return the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people to Kremlin control.

And while Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko may be persona non grata in the West, he remains an honoured guest in Moscow.

Now an ugly trade row between the two countries -- centering on transit through the Druzhba, or "friendship," oil pipeline -- reveals that in President Vladimir Putin's increasingly powerful Russia even friends can fast become adversaries.

With its huge energy resources and dozens of increasingly energy-reliant neighbours, Russia can afford to play tough.

So although leaders of these mostly Slavic neighbours like to talk about their "brotherly" relations, Russia was ruthless in December, demanding Belarus pay more than double for its highly subsidised natural gas imports or face a shut-off on New Year's day.

Moscow also imposed an export tax on oil sold to Belarus, putting a big dent in the profitability of Belarussian refineries that buy Russian crude before selling their own products to Europe.

What was even less expected, though, was Belarus' fight-back.

Lukashenko adopted a patriotic tone, accusing Moscow of striking a "blow to our centuries-old friendship."

His government then imposed a transit fee on Russian oil and when Moscow refused to pay, started taking the oil itself as payment in kind -- provoking a shortfall in imports to Germany and Poland.

Valery Karbalevich, an independent economic expert in Minsk, told AFP that the apparent meltdown in Russian-Belarussian relations was predictable.

"From the start the union plan was utopian because both sides had different goals," he said.

"Russia imagined that Belarus would become part of Russia. Lukashenko, following a failed bid to be able to run for the Russian presidency, limited his goals simply to getting cheap energy in return for brotherly love.

"It went on for quite a long time, but was bound to run into trouble one day."

Another analyst, Alexei Makarkin at the Centre for Political Technologies, said that Belarus posed Kremlin strategists with a tricky challenge since Lukashenko's only opponents are pro-Westerners.

"There is no pro-Russian opposition in Belarus and Russia badly doesn't want the strengthening of the West's position in Belarus," he told news website. "Like it or not, we have to support Lukashenko's regime. He knows this perfectly well and is successfully exploiting that."

Date created : 2007-01-10