Is the Russian-Belarusian conflict over the price of gas an international conflict? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the conflict falls outside his ministry's jurisdiction and should be settled by the countries' energy companies.
President Dmitry Medvedev gave Belarus five days to settle its $192 million debt for gas deliveries in 2010, after which Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller announced a 10% reduction in Russian gas deliveries to Belarus effective 10 a.m. on June 21. When he made the announcement on June 19, Miller sounded less like the CEO of a private company and more like a government official: "The president said it all. We will follow his orders."
The gas conflict is both a private and a government affair. This is a dispute between two companies that are both guided by the decisions of their presidents. Any economist will tell you that nothing good can come of these disputes, as they exist in a gray area between politics and economics, where laws are powerless before the will of individuals.
It was not Russia that chose supply reductions - an inefficient payment method. There are numerous private companies in Russia that operate abroad independently. Whether they make money and lose money depends entirely on market forces and the quality of their work. But what can be done if of the pipeline leads to a country where the economy is literally managed by a single man who wants to keep his hands on all the levers? How can there be rules of the game if your partner is used to rigging the game so that he always wins. And this includes every election since 1994?
Russia has no choice but to respond by concentrating all decision-making in its president and approaching the dispute as a government affair. The problem is we don't know who we are negotiating with.
In his dealings with Russia, President Alexander Lukashenko is not even a two-faced Janus but rather the mythical shape-shifter Proteus. He takes whatever form is most advantageous to him at the moment.
When Lukashenko is seeking loans from Russia or the European Union, he presents himself as the head of an absolutely independent country that can dispose of any borrowed money as it sees fit. When it comes to price of Russian gas and oil for Belarus, he becomes the president of a member-country of the Customs Union and the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and as such is ostensibly entitled to duty-free oil and gas at Russia's domestic prices. When it comes to Belarus's commitments to these integration agencies, Lukashenko is a steely diplomat and the head of a sovereign state that has no intention of helping Central Asian countries build hydroelectric stations (there were such projects within the EurAsEC framework).
But when he needs to scapegoat Russia for his country's troubles, he accuses it of refusing to provide "brotherly aid." Lukashenko stops speaking like a diplomat and resorts to histrionics. Here is a recent example: "The economy of Belarus essentially works for the Russian economy. And spare us the crap about how we just want handouts! No, we are very useful to Russia, from production to defense and other issues... It is unacceptable to act like that towards Belarus - lowering or fixing gas prices for others while raising prices for us. Gazprom and Russians won't make much money on this but they may lose a lot," the BELTA agency quoted Lukashenko.
These are not the words of a diplomat. True politicians do not resort to half-truths or oversimplify the situation to support their arguments.
Russia has lowered the price of gas for its EU partners not out of hostility toward Belarus, but because the EU was paying several times more than Belarus. Russia had to bridge this gap, so beginning in 2010 Russia increased the price Belarus pays from $150 to $174 while lowering the price for the EU, where gas prices are falling due to the crisis. Lukashenko first pretended that he did not know about the increase, and later accused Russia of stabbing Belarus in the back. It appears that Minsk is simply incapable of paying its $192 million debt, despite the billions of dollars it received in loans from Moscow last year.
Lukashenko's response was the same when Russia raised gas prices in 2005 and 2008. Initially he did not react to reports of a price increase before releasing a torrent of indignation. A man is defined by his style, and each time Lukashenko is careful to pair his groaning with a sophisticated game involving the sale of Beltransgaz shares to Gazprom. At one point they were worth $2.5 billion, then $5 billion. Gazprom is given the chance to purchase 50% of the shares, then 49% and then 50% minus one share. In all of this, Lukashenko is pursuing only one goal - to secure loans and subsidized gas from Russia, which he pays for with talk of "Slavic unity."
The Slavic unity of the Belarusian and Russian people is a fact. But these noble words should not be exploited for cheap political gain. Under the agreements signed by Lukashenko, our countries were supposed to switch to a common currency in 2005. A constitutional act removing the barriers between our states is long overdue. Yet this does not prevent Lukashenko from claiming his right to subsidized oil and gas on an almost weekly basis.
It is gradually becoming clear that an authoritarian style of leadership eventually takes a toll on the economy by undermining the trust of partners and ensuring that economic developments remain unpredictable. If you're willing to use marked cards in an election, why not use them during negotiations on gas prices? It is extremely important that bilateral relations between Russia and Belarus are based on civilized and democratic rules. Lukashenko's hands-on style of governing both in the political arena and the economy must become a thing of the past.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Babich)