Belarus Warns Against Gas Price Hike

Combined Reports

MINSK -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened on Friday to sever all relations with Russia if Moscow sharply hiked gas prices for Minsk.

He also warned that a merger of Belarus with Russia could lead to violence and disorder worse than in Chechnya.

Lukashenko's blunt remarks highlighted rising tensions between the two countries amid strained talks over natural gas prices, which Gazprom has threatened to quadruple from next year.

"A price hike to such levels would mean full severance of all ties, particularly in the economy," Lukashenko told Russian journalists at a four-hour news conference broadcast live by state radio. "We will survive, but you will lose the last ally. You will simply lose face."

Moscow and Minsk signed a union treaty in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of creating a single state. The Kremlin, increasingly impatient about subsidizing Belarus' economy with cheap gas, has since proposed that Belarus be absorbed into Russia.

Lukashenko, who has vehemently opposed such a union, reiterated his stance. "Even Stalin didn't go as far as that. ... I don't want to be the first and the last Belarussian president," he said.

He said its incorporation into Russia could trigger chaos and even fighting.

"As soon as Belarus becomes part of Russia, it'll be worse here than in Chechnya," he said. "We'll have people coming in from Georgia, from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries. They are ready today to come with weapons."

Gazprom says it will increase prices if Minsk does not cede control of its gas pipelines. Minsk has rebuffed the offer.

Belarus pays some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian natural gas, while Gazprom wants to boost prices to about $200, saying concessions on pipeline ownership would cut this tariff.

Lukashenko said he was ready to swap a 50 percent stake in Beltransgas, the state company managing the pipeline network, for the right to extract at least 10 billion cubic meters of gas in Russia annually.

(Reuters, AP)