Alyaksandr Lukashenka threatens to shut down oil and gas pipelines if the EU adopts U.S.-backed sanctions.
[The following article by Vladimir Solovyev, "Transit Threatened: Alyaksandr Lukashenka Blackmails EU With Russian Energy Resources," was published in the independent Moscow newspaper Kommersant on 15 May.]
The Reuters news agency published an interview with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka [on 14 May] in which he threatened the European Union with energy sanctions for the first time if it did the bidding of the United States and pursued a tougher line against his country. The Belarusian leader also announced for the first time that he intends to run for yet another presidential term, his fourth in all. There is only one way Mr. Lukashenka will abandon this plan: if he becomes a political figure on a union scale.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has discovered new opportunities for effectively standing up to the West, which has recently been increasing its political and economic pressure on Minsk. Yesterday the Reuters news agency published its second interview with the Belarusian leader in the past 12 months. In this interview, Lukashenka explicitly warned the EU's authorities that they should not listen to the United States and introduce economic sanctions against his country (Washington introduced [stepped-up] sanctions against Belarusian enterprise Belnaftakhim, a major source of revenue for the state, this spring), as Minsk would react very sharply to this.
"The United States is trying to get the European Union to introduce sanctions against Belarus. This would be to the detriment of Europe. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the EU has so far not adopted the American position," Alyaksandr Lukashenka said, praising the European Union; he then proceeded to threaten it: "If you must do it, go ahead and join [the sanctions], but do not forget that half of your oil, half of your petroleum products, and 30 percent of your gas goes through Belarus." The Belarusian leader then advised the European Union to think about its current behavior towards the Belarusian authorities. "You criticized the USSR for the iron curtain. And what are you doing now? How did we manage to frighten you so much that you have forbidden me and other people from entering your countries? We are situated between two important blocs, which are very different from one another. We are a unique bridge, and we must unite these contrasts," Alyaksandr Lukashenka said, reproaching his Western colleagues.
Through its efforts to plant democracy in his country, "the West is trying, if not to destroy this bridge, then at least to make it wobble," the Belarusian president said. "I cannot understand why they feel compelled to do this. Today, in such a critical situation, when energy resources determine everything, you are trying to destroy the bridge over which the oil and gas flows," Mr. Lukashenka said, once again reverting to threats.
A BOLD DARE
In the course of his many quarrels with Europe, the Belarusian president had never before resorted to energy blackmail. Furthermore, Mr. Lukashenka is the first leader of the post-Soviet countries who has dared use the transit position of his country, through which the oil and gas pipelines pass, for his own foreign policy purposes. Until now only Moscow, which has grown accustomed in recent years to playing the energy card against Western countries, had used this unique instrument.
It is quite possible, meanwhile, that the threats uttered by Mr. Lukashenka will actually be carried out. The Yamal-Europe gas pipeline and the Druzhba [Friendship] oil pipeline both run through Belarus, and the latter is a key route for pumping oil from Russia to the EU. In the best of years, up to 70 percent of Russian oil has passed through this pipeline.
Mr. Lukashenka's intention to employ this time-honored Russian weapon in his stand-off with the West is hardly likely to please the Russian authorities. Indirect confirmation of this can be found in [the 14 May] announcement by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said that Russia should implement the BTS-2 oil pipeline project, which would deliver Russian oil to Europe without passing through Russia's fellow union state [Belarus]. But this project will take time to implement. For now -- and Mr. Lukashenka understands this perfectly well -- there is no alternative to the Belarusian route for Russian energy supplies. Feeling every bit the master of the situation, the Belarusian leader, whose current presidential term expires in 2011, stated in the same Reuters interview that he intends to run for a new presidential term, the fourth of his career. "If the situation remains the same as now, both with me personally and with the country, then of course I will run for another term. If the situation with me or the country changes, then I could make a different decision. So far I am a healthy man, the people do not criticize me all that strongly, and the West is beginning to understand. It is possible. Expect the worst," Mr. Lukashenka said.
NO MENTION OF RUSSIA
It is worth pointing out that Alyaksandr Lukashenka did not mention Russia even once in the interview. Speaking with journalists from the very same Reuters news agency back in February of last year, on the other hand, the Belarusian president repented to the West that he had pursued a one-dimensional foreign policy, focusing exclusively on Moscow. After offering the West friendship, he then went on to criticize Russia for its "imperial policy" and even threatened to send its union ally a bill for the use of military facilities on Belarusian soil and transit to Kaliningrad Oblast. These threats were never implemented, however.
At the same time, the fact that Mr. Lukashenka did not say anything about Russian-Belarusian relations this time does not at all mean that he is not paying due attention to them. In late April, during a visit to one of the country's regions, he criticized Moscow quite sharply for trying to bring about a friendly takeover of Belarus: "The path that has been proposed to us by Russia is unacceptable. We cannot become part of any other state, not only of Russia." The proposals that Mr. Lukashenka was referring to may have been presented to him in December of last year, when Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Minsk. It was reported in the media at the time that a constitutional act would be signed during a meeting of the supreme state council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which would proclaim a union state with Vladimir Putin as president and Alyaksandr Lukashenka as head of the union parliament. It is difficult to say whether this integration option was presented to Minsk or not. It is known, however, that the talks between the two presidents, which lasted for many hours, led nowhere: the constitutional act was never signed, and the union state continues to exist only on paper.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Nevertheless, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has not buried the idea of building a union with Russia, but he will only do so on terms that are more favorable to himself. During his last address to the people and parliament of Belarus, he declared: "When I say that we and Russia are prepared to build our union state, this is indeed the case. This is not a game." That means the Belarusian president is counting on one day being able to realize his dream of heading the union state, which he once discussed with Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin. Alyaksandr Lukashenka often hints that he would be able to manage Russia's riches far better than the current rulers of his neighboring country. He has long made a tradition of meeting with Russian journalists and telling them that in his country "even a milkmaid makes $500 [a month] during a good season." He also drew numerous parallels with Russia in the aforementioned address to the Belarusian people. It is revealing that while communicating with his fellow countrymen Mr. Lukashenka pronounced the word "Russia" 26 times but mentioned the name of his own state only 18 times. For the most part he was comparing the economic and social indicators of the two countries, which, naturally, did not favor Russia.
Experts do not doubt that if Alyaksandr Lukashenka were allowed constant, open access to the Russian media, he might very well rival Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin in the ratings. "If they gave him media opportunities in Russia, he would rise very quickly there. He is a player, and he likes to play in unpredictable situations. And if Medvedev were running the country without Putin's guardianship, Lukashenka would actually beat him in every area," Leanid Zaika, head of Belarus's Strategy Analytical Center, told Kommersant.
Incidentally, the Belarusian leader might soon get the opportunities the expert was talking about. The thing is that last September, after a long period of inactivity, the Union State Television and Radio Broadcasting Organization (Union TRO), came back to life. It was established under an agreement between Russia and Belarus dating back to 1998, but until recently it was virtually standing idle. In 2006, famous showman Igor Ugolnikov became its chairman. Late last year, TRO's television channel started broadcasting via satellite, and yesterday Mr. Ugolnikov told Kommersant that on 1 June the channel would begin broadcasting via all cable networks in Belarus. TRO's chairman even plans to make it a full-fledged federal channel covering all of Russia. "We want to develop, and at the next meeting of the union state's council of ministers we will present a plan for the development of TRO, which we want to make a federal channel. For me, TRO is ORT [Russia's state-run Channel One TV]," Mr. Ugolnikov said.
Source: Kommersant, Moscow, in Russian 15 May 2008