Belarus Battles Russia Over Oil

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What happens when the little guy plots revenge? Over New Year's Day, tiny Belarus caved in to Russia, its gigantic gas supplier and next-door neighbor, agreeing to a steep rise in prices. On Jan. 3, however, Belarus' neo-Stalinist President Alexander Lukashenko — and formerly a professed ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — said on television that his government officials should "feel free getting oil supplies at your discretion, wherever you can" at non-extortionist prices. "Oil refineries must be supplied. Otherwise, our chemical/petroleum industries, that account for half of our economy, will stop, which means millions of people left without salaries." And the bureaucrats who failed to keep the supply up "will be handcuffed and thrown into jail."

Many officials apparently took that as a directive to tap into the Russian oil that is being pumped to Poland and Germany through Belarus. Transneft, Russia's state-owned transporting company, said today that Belarus started siphoning off Russia's oil on Jan. 6 — diverting 79,000 tons in two days. Early Monday, Polish officials said that Belarus blocked the Russian Druzhba ("Friendship") oil pipeline that carries oil to Poland and Germany. Russia then closed the pipeline to prevent more Belarussian theft. "Now there is a threat to the fulfillment of international contracts between Russian companies and companies in Western Europe and Eastern Europe," said Andrew Sharonov, Russian Economics and Trade Minister "We view this as a force-majeure, as the onset of unavoidable circumstances."

The German government said its supplies were secure but that Berlin was watching the developments "with concern" and appealed to Russian and Belarussian authorities to "fulfill their obligations of delivery and transit." Germany depends on the pipeline for one-fifth of its oil imports. Poland receives 50% of its oil from Russia and most of it comes through the pipeline. Warsaw, however, says it has enough oil for 80 days and, if needed, can receive shipments through Baltic ports. Polish newspapers have started calling the controversy "The Russia-Belarus Oil War."

Indeed, the rhetoric in Moscow has become bellicose when the subject comes to Belarus. The state-run TV channel has started calling the Lukashenko regime "impulsive and fraudulent," with political commentary depicting Belarus as a virtual enemy state, rather than an erstwhile ally. The fear in Belarus is that Russia is using energy supplies as a cudgel to take over Belarus' economy in order to forcibly reintegrate Belarus into the Russian federation. Indeed, Lukashenko played on those fears at the Orthodox Christmas rites last night at the Minsk Cathedral, delivering a pledge to preserve Belarus' sovereignty. But now with Europe's dependence on Russian oil in play, other nations are likely to get into this two-country drama. >

—with reporting by Andrew Purvis/Berlin