Belarus Heads Toward a New Year's Face-off With Putin

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Russia has never been shy about using its enormous natural gas and oil resources — and its neighbors' lack of the same — as a not-so-subtle diplomatic weapon. Last New Year's Eve, amid icy blasts of winter, Russia's state-owned Gazprom turned off the gas on democratizing Ukraine, which has often tacked the other way from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other former Soviet republics under his thrall. This year, however, the focus is Belarus, the nouvelle Stalinist state run by Alexander Lukashenko, a man who has tried to appear to be Putin's acolyte. On Jan. 1, unless Belarus agrees to pay double what it used to for Russian gas ($105 per 1000 cubic meters instead of the current $46), Moscow will cut off gas supplies and leave its erstwhile ally in the cold. Other observers believe something more shadowy than a pure grab for more money is in the works: a reincorporation of Belarus into a reconfigured Russian Federation. "It does feel like war is about to break out within days," says journalist and human rights activist Irina Khalip in a phone call from the Belarus capital of Minsk. "People are stockpiling fuel and warm clothes."

But Putin would not need to send troops to accomplish the expansion of his Russian Federation. Khalip and other observers believe that Putin is using the price hike to pressure Lukashenko to agree to make the Russian ruble the sole currency of Belarus. More importantly, Putin wants Lukashenko to stop dragging his feet on establishing the "Allied State of Russia and Belarus" — proclaimed in 1997 — and to sign the Constitutional Act in 2007 that could lead to the formal inclusion of Belarus into the Russian Federation. That would make Putin the first reunifier of the Slavic lands lost by the previous leaders in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Annexing Belarus would also create a new legal option for Putin to stay on in the Kremlin, should he so choose: it would be his first constitutional term as President of a new state rather than the third unconstitutional one of the current Russian Federation.

Might these simply be the imaginings of the conspiratorial Slavic mind? Russia merely says that the threatened cutoff is business. Market prices are for all, friend or foe. And for practical reasons, Russia may want to exert full control over Beltransgaz, Belarus' gas distribution network. The cornerstone of Lukashenko's regime has been his ability to run the economy on cheap Russian gas as well as to sell expensive products refined from cheap Russian crude oil to other customers in Europe. If Russia goes ahead with the cutoff, Belarus threatens to hijack gas designated for European customers that run in pipelines through its territory. Immediately affected would be neighbors like Poland and Lithuania as well the Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad.

Lukashenko might take advantage of the crisis by imposing a state of emergency and assuming even greater dictatorial powers. He could also make humanitarian appeals to the world community to prevent Putin from freezing his people out of power — and himself out of the Presidential palace. If he surrenders to Putin, the consequences are fraught. Much as Belarussians need their fuel, they do value their independence. The temperatures may be cold in Minsk over the New Year. But it will be a hot time.