By RICHARD BOUDREAUX in Moscow and GORDON FAIRCLOUGH in Prague Europe's longest-ruling president took office for a fourth term Friday, facing threatened Western sanctions for his disputed, violence-tainted re-election in Belarus and unexpected pressure from Russia, his former Soviet republic's chief benefactor.
As the U.S. and European Union boycotted Alexander Lukashenko's gala inaugural ceremony in Minsk, Russia's oil pipeline monopoly stepped up a pricing dispute, saying it had begun redirecting oil earmarked for Belarus to alternative buyers.
Mr. Lukashenko has for years sought to play Russia and the West against each other, hinting at softening his authoritarian rule to lure limited Western aid and ease his country's historic dependence on Moscow. His balancing act collapsed the night of the Dec. 19 presidential election with a brutal police crackdown on thousands of protesters who said the count was rigged to give him nearly 80% of the vote.
While the U.S. and 27-nation EU weigh a coordinated ban on visas and a freeze on bank accounts of senior Belarussian officials, Russia has come forward with offers of cooperation with Minsk. On Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia would lend money for a nuclear power plant to generate more than one quarter of Belarus' electricity. He also said Belarus could count on $4.1 billion in subsidies for Russian oil and gas, a figure slightly higher than officials in Moscow had previously announced.
But Russia is demanding more in return for its largesse and, with the West in a punitive mood, holds more leverage over Mr. Lukashenko.
Subsidies aside, Russia is seeking higher baseline prices than Belarus paid last year for oil and gas. Russian companies halted crude-oil deliveries to Belarus on Jan. 1. Mr. Putin and his Belarussian counterpart met Thursday but failed to agree on new prices for oil. Friday's move by pipeline monopoly OAO Transneft to redirect Belarus-bound oil is a sign that Russia doesn't expect the dispute to be settled soon. Belarus says its oil will run out at the end of January.
Russia is also pressing for concessions Mr. Lukashenko resists-ownership stakes in Belarus's oil companies and energy infrastructure.
The 56-year-old leader spent part of his inaugural address Friday belittling his domestic critics, including four rival presidential candidates and nearly 30 others who remain in jail following their election-night arrests. "The time for revolutions and revolts is over," he declared before a few thousand people in the Palace of the Republic in Minsk. But he gave faint signals of willingness to compromise, calling Belarus "a bridge between East and West" that seeks "the best results from cooperation with Russia, Ukraine, China, Venezuela as well as the EU and the U.S."
Jaroslav Romanchuk, an election rival who wasn't jailed, said Mr. Lukashenko might be interested in freeing prisoners in order to head off sanctions.
"He does not sound like a leader who wants to isolate himself from the West altogether and put himself in a position where Russia can dominate him completely," Mr. Romanchuk said in a telephone interview from Minsk.
Lithuanian vice foreign minister Evaldas Ignatavicius said Mr. Lukashenko's actions in the coming days will shape the EU foreign ministers' decision on sanctions at a meeting on Jan. 31. Thomas Melia, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state, will make an assessment during a visit to Minsk starting Saturday.
"There is a consensus that a travel ban has to be targeted against those officials involved" in the crackdown, Mr. Ignatavicius said, adding that other options are also on the table. He spoke in a telephone interview from Lithuania, where all 12 chiefs of EU diplomatic missions in Belarus traveled Friday to visit Belarussian exiles and discuss the bloc's position.
Some diplomats said the EU does not want to push Mr. Lukashenko too deeply into Russia's embrace and may stop short of sanctions, demanded by Poland and others, that would cut off EU funding and block resources from international financial institutions to Belarus.
Representatives of 32 countries and international organizations, including Russia, attended Mr. Lukashenko's inauguration. The Belarussian leader, who has held power for 16? years, was driven to the government palace with his 6-year-old son Kolya, the offspring of an extramarital relationship. After the swearing-in, he joined the boy in a special box to watch a variety show featuring pop singers in folk costumes and dancers clad in pink.
-Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Moscow contributed to this article.
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