Transit Threat

Open Gallery...Yesterday Reuters published an interview with Belarus’ President Aliaksandr Lukashenka where he threatened the EU with energy sanctions for the first time should it let the USA push itself around making the line on his country tougher. Besides, the Belarusian leader stated for the first time that he was going to run for president for the fourth consecutive time. Mr Lukashenka can abandon this plan only in case he becomes the politician of the Russia-Belarus Union scale.

Russian-style blackmail

Aliaksandr Lukashenka discovered new means of effectively confronting the West that has recently built up its political and economic pressure against Minsk. Yesterday the Reuters agency published a second interview with the Belarusian leader within a year. In it, Mr Lukashenka bluntly warned the EU against following the USA and imposing economic sanctions on his country (this spring Washington imposed sanctions on the “Belneftehim” concern – an enterprise accounting for the lion’s share of the Belarusian budget). Otherwise Minsk will respond severely.

“The Americans want the Europeans to introduce sanctions against Belarus, which will only hamper Europe. The Europeans fortunately haven’t taken up the U.S. position,” Aliaksandr Lukashenka praised the EU for that but warned it immediately, “Now they want the Europeans to join in. You can if you wish. But don’t forget that 50 percent of your oil and oil products and 30 percent of your gas passes through Belarus.” After this the Belarusian leader urged the EU to consider its current steps regarding Belarus’ government. “You criticised the Soviet Union for creating an iron curtain. And just what are doing now? Have we frightened you to such an extent that you bar individuals, including me, from entering Britain and other EU states? We are located between two very powerful blocs that differ so much from each other. We are a sort of bridge that must somehow bring together those differences,” Aliaksandr Lukashenka censured his western counterparts.

According to the President of Belarus, when trying to implant democracy in his country, “the West attempts to destroy the bridge, or at least to make it wobbly.” “Why do you do this? I just don’t understand. Today when the situation is tense and energy is a determining factor in our lives, you are starting to destroy the bridge along which oil, oil products and gas flow,” Mr Lukashenka resorted to threats once again.

The Belarusian President has never used energy blackmail during his numerous rows with the EU. Moreover, Mr Lukashenko has been the first leader of a post-Soviet state to dare use the specific location of his country, which is a transit way for oil and gas pipelines going from Russia to Europe, to his foreign policy ends. Until now only Moscow has used this unique instrument. It has got accustomed to taking advantage of its energy resources in its relations with the West.

For all that, the treats that Mr Lukashenka made public yesterday, may be carried out. The Yamal-Europe gas pipeline and the “Druzhba” (“Friendship”) oil pipeline cross Belarus, with the latter being the key route of Russian oil supplies to the EU. Time was when the latter transported up to 70% of Russian oil.

Belarusian-style game

Mr Lukashenka’s intention to use the traditionally Russian weapon in his confrontation with West is unlikely to please Russia’s government. Yesterday’s statement of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can be regarded a circumstantial evidence proving it. He said that Russia should launch the BTS-2 oil pipeline, which will transport oil to Europe omitting the territory of Russia’s partner within the union. All the same, time will be needed to fulfil it. So far – and Mr Lukashenka knows it perfectly well – there is no alternative to the Belarusian route of Russian energy supplies to Europe. Feeling master of the situation, the Belarusian leader, whose current presidential term expires 2011, announced in his interview to Reuters his intention to run for president for the fourth time. “Let me say openly that if the situation remains as it is today in the country and for me personally then, of course, I will run again for another term. If the situation with me or the country changes, I can change my mind, too. For the moment, I am healthy. The people are not especially critical of me and the West is beginning to understand that it is entirely possible. But we will have to wait and see. So you can expect the worst,” stated Mr Lukashenka.

Curiously, Mr Lukashenka barely mentioned Russia in yesterday’s interview. At that, last February when speaking to the journalists of the same Reuters agency, the Belarusian President confessed to the West that he was carrying out a univector policy heading for Moscow only. Offering friendship to the West, he criticised Russia for its “imperial policy” and even threatened to make Russia pay for exploiting military facilities on the territory of Belarus and using the country as a transit route to the Kaliningrad region. But these threats haven’t been carried out yet.

The fact that Mr Lukashenka didn’t say a word concerning the relations between Russia and Belarus doesn’t mean that he pays no due attention to them. At the end of April, on his visit to one of the regions of the country, he poured scorn on Moscow for its desire to merge Belarus acting like its partner. “The way suggested by Russia is unacceptable for us. We can’t become part of any state, not only Russia.” The proposals Mr Lukashenka spoke of could be made last December as Vladimir Putin visited Minsk. At that time unofficial information appeared that a Constitutional act would be signed at the session of the Supreme State Council of the Union of Russia and Belarus. The act was to establish the union state, where Vladimir Putin would be President, and Alexander Lukashenko – Chairman of the Parliament. It’s difficult to say for sure where this variant of integration was proposed to Minsk. But it is known that the two-hour talks of the presidents brought no results: No Constitutional act was signed, and the union still continues existing in the documents only.

All-union ambitions

Nonetheless, Aliksandr Lukashenka hasn’t abandoned the idea of setting up a union with Russia based on the principles that’ll be beneficial for him personally. During his latest address to the people and the parliament he stated, “If I say that we are committed to building a union with Russia – it is true. It is no game.” It means that the Belarusian President reckons to make his dream come true some day becoming head of the union state – an idea he once discussed with Russia’s First President Boris Yeltsin. Alexander Lukashenka often hints that he could handle Russian resources better than the current rulers of the neighbouring country. He has made it a tradition to regularly meet with Russian journalists whom he tells that in his country even a milkmaid earns $500 in a hot summer. He compared his state with Russia in the mentioned address to the nation, too. Interestingly, when speaking to his countrymen, Mr Lukashenka uttered the word “Russia” 26 times, and “Belarus” – only 18 times. In most cases he compared economic and social indexes of both states, where Russia, of course, was not placed in a good light.

Experts have no doubt that in case Aliaksandr Lukashenka had permanent access to the Russian mass media, he could compete on equal terms with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. “If he were given the opportunity in Russia, his rating would rocket. He is a player, and he likes unpredictable situations. And if Medvedev governed the country without Putin’s “wardship,” Lukashenka would certainly outdo him,” Leonid Zaiko, Head of the Belarusian Analytical Centre “The Strategy” told Kommersant.

By the way, the Belarusian leader can soon get the opportunity the expert spoke about. The thing is that in September the Telebroadcasting Organization of the Union was revived. It was set up according to the treaty between Russia and Belarus as far back as 1998, but until now it hasn’t worked. 2006 a famous showman Igor Ugolnikov became its head, and at the end of the last year the channel began broadcasting via satellite. Yesterday Mr Ugolnikov told Kommersantthat the channel will be broadcast within all cable networks of Belarus starting with June 1. The head of the organization is planning to turn it into a true federal channel covering the entire Russia. “We want to develop, and we’ll present a project of the development of the channel during the next session of the ministers of the union. We want the channel to become a federal one. I regard it as another First Channel (of Russia),” Mr Ugolnikov said.

Vladimir Solovyov

Photo by Dmytry Azarov (