Lukashenko slams Russia over energy dispute, border security

Lukashenko slams Russia over energy dispute, border security
Strained times for Russia and its former Soviet ally Belarus.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Minsk February 3, 2017

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on February 3 branded the escalating oil and gas dispute with Russia a 'humiliation" of his country, while regarding Moscow's decision to set up a special security zone along the shared border as a "purely political decision".

"We have not been able to reach an agreement yet [on the energy issue]," Interfax news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying at a questions and answer session with journalists and analysts in Minsk. "I have already stooped to recounting almost all the details about how the talks went. How do I understand this? How do I view this? Well, as humiliation."

Russia is demanding that Belarus repay around $550mn for natural gas already provided by the state-controlled company Gazprom. While Minsk had bought Russian gas for $132 per 1,000 cubic metres, it unilaterally lowered the price to under $80, saying this was a fair price and in sync with existing agreements. 

The debt row triggered a rapid escalation of measures by both sides. Since the start of July, Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft pumped some 40% less oil to Belarus than in the second quarter because of the claimed debt to Gazprom.

Lukashenko added that the Belarusian authorities have filed "a lawsuit according to our agreements".

Earlier, Gazprom subsidiary Gazprom Transgaz Belarus filed a lawsuit to arbitrators at the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry against state-controlled regional gas distribution companies over the gas supply debt.

"We can do without Russian oil," BelTA news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying during the meeting. "It is going to be difficult. But freedom and independence are not measured by money ... Independence, integrity, our historical past are worth much more than oil."

Described Moscow's establishment of a control zone along the border with Belarus as a political move, he warned that "mindless uncoordinated steps ... only worsen our relations, and this should not happen! We need to rewind."

According to an order signed by the director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) Aleksander Bortnikov, a new border zone established in the Smolensk, Pskov and Bryansk regions will reinforce the frontier with Belarus with warning signs and entry restrictions when it takes effect on February 12.

This is the same day that Belarusian authorities will lift visa requirements for citizens of 80 countries visiting the republic for up to five days via its main airport in Minsk. The new regulations will apply to 39 countries in Europe, including the entire EU, as well as Brazil, Indonesia, the US, Japan, and other countries. Russia has expressed concerns that foreign citizens will use this as a means of entering its territory. 

Lukashenko said that his relations with Russia President Vladimir Putin are good even if not easy at times, BelTA reported. But he underlined that there are different forces in the Russian government, as a result of which "certain issues are at odds with the opinion and resolutions of the president [Putin]".

The two leaders are expected to meet in Moscow at some point in February, earlier reports said.

Meanwhile, Belarusian officials have dismissed reports that the country intends to pull out of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, two groupings of former Soviet republics, amid its dispute with Russia.