Russia has resumed pumping crude oil to Western Europe through Belarus, after shutting down a pipeline for three days amid charges that authorities in Minsk were illegally siphoning off Russian oil. The energy dispute between Russia and Belarus aroused widespread concern throughout Europe.
Leaders of the European Union, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were unhappy about a lack of consultations between Moscow and its European customers. Some observers in Moscow believe the disagreement with Minsk is more complex, with both financial and political aspects to the Kremlin's pressure campaign against Belarus.
The dispute came to a head when Russia forced Belarus to sign a new energy agreement that more than doubled the price of Russian natural gas in Belarus. This followed a significant cooling of relations between the two former Soviet republics. Russia and Belarus signed an agreement in 1999 that was intended to unite their monetary, economic and legal systems. Little was accomplished, however, and the seventh anniversary of the Russian-Belarus union treaty (on December 15th) came and went almost unnoticed.
Experts including Evgeni Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation say one of the main reasons for the energy dispute was the Kremlin's desire to weaken the position of the Belorussian leader Alexander Lukashenko. "I think that people in the Kremlin realized that Lukashenko is not acceptable either in a political or economic sense and that the question of creating a joint state is no longer there. And now, the aim is to, essentially, politically choke Lukashenko using economic methods."
Analysts say increased gas prices for Belorussian consumers could severely hamper the country's economy and perhaps even more importantly, slow social programs -- a combination of effects which could eventually damage Alexander Lukashenko's popularity at home.
Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Makrov says Moscow is still interested in further integration between the two countries. "The Kremlin would be happy to see Lukashenko go, but that's not on today's agenda.
The Kremlin is either trying to make Lukashenko move forward towards the creation of a joint state, because the people of Russia and Belarus want that, or, if he's not ready to do that, to pay his bills in full."
Seven years after its creation, the plans to unify Russia and Belarus have made little progress. There is no joint Constitution; they have separate currencies, passports, state institutions and symbols. Probably the only achievement so far is the joint anti-missile defense system, as well as visa-free travel between the two countries.
Kremlin officials insist that Belorussian president is to blame for the stalling of further integration between Russia and Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko repeatedly said that he will not give up his country's sovereignty. Besides, Lukashenko is often referred to as the "last dictator in Europe," and according to Evgeni Volk, his reputation casts a dark shadow on Russia. "At the moment, Moscow can't really say it has many achievements in the sphere of human rights and freedoms, neither in a political nor economic sense. And here is Lukashenko, who constantly associates himself with Russia. So it makes Russia look like it is supporting him, helping him and providing stability for his regime. And that, with the background of all other problems that exist between Russia and the West, serves as an additional irritant in relations."
The interruption of oil supplies to European consumers -- even for just three days -- seems to have damaged Russia's image. European Union leaders expressed their dismay over lack of communication between Moscow and its European partners, and European press is widely discussing how to free Europe from excessive dependency on Russian energy supplies.
Nevertheless, according to Sergei Markov, the Kremlin is convinced that Russia's reputation will not suffer long-term damage. "All this talk about Russia being an unreliable supplier [is] taken as part of a specially organized public relations campaign in the Kremlin, because all those media who are now screaming about Russia being unreliable, [as recently as five or six years ago] were calling for Russia to raise oil and gas prices for Belarus, and stop subsidizing its economy."
The dispute between Moscow and Minsk again showed that Alexander Lukashenko does not have many supporters in Europe -- and that Russia is virtually the only country which still has strong economic and political ties with Belarus. That means the Belorussian president will have to continue playing by rules set in the Kremlin.