Belarus leader says Russia ties to survive gas war

Sun Jun 27, 2010 5:47pm IST

* Lukashenko says last week's gas cut-off was political

* Says no strategic split with Russia, ties with EU also bad

* Says sees LNG as alternative to expensive Russian gas

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, June 27 (Reuters) - This week's gas war between Russia and Belarus will not cause a lasting split between the long-time allies but will boost Minsk's search for alternative gas suppliers, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said.

A dispute over gas payments and transit debts triggered a stand-off between the ex-Soviet neighbours this week and resulted in Russia briefly cutting gas supplies to Belarus, which in turn halted onward transit to the EU.

Russia's decision to cut gas supply was "100 percent" political, but Belarus has little choice but to retain close ties with Moscow, Lukashenko said in an interview with the Euronews television channel.

"You cannot say there is a split in strategic relations," Lukashenko said, according to a transcript released by his office late on Saturday, a day after extracts were broadcast by Euronews. "Big politics does not tolerate such about-turns."

Relations between the two Slavic nations have soured over the past year over milk exports and loans, turning Minsk into one of the Kremlin's biggest headaches. But Lukashenko said the West, critical of Minsk's human rights record, did not offer Belarus an alternative to close ties with Moscow.

"Do you think Europe behaves any better towards us? Not at all," he said.

Russia triggered a dispute last week when it said Belarus owed it around $200 million for gas deliveries and started to reduce supplies, causing a brief fall in deliveries to EU members Poland and Lithuania.

Supplies resumed on Thursday after Minsk paid the bill. Lukashenko said he was only able to pay thanks to a $200 million loan from Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev.

Lukashenko said Russia initiated the gas dispute to press Belarus to cede control of strategic state assets and to boost energy prices by reducing supplies. He said Moscow hoped to increase its leverage over him ahead of a presidential election in Belarus next year.

BELARUS EYES LNG

The spat proved "that it is absolutely impossible to rely on Russia" for energy supplies, Lukashenko said, hardening Minsk's resolve to look for alternatives to expensive Russian energy.

"We are looking. We have found oil in Venezuela, which really annoyed Russia," he said. "Today we are working, as Europe is working, to receive liquefied natural gas."

Lukashenko did not say where he hoped to buy the gas, or which third country might deliver the gas to landlocked Belarus. He said Norway and Qatar are selling gas to Western Europe for $174-176 per thousand cubic meters, while Russia is trying to charge Belarus $230 per thousand cubic metres in 2011.

Lukashenko said the dispute betrayed splits between Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Medvedev has made tentative moves to move out of the shadow of mentor Putin in recent months, but the pair remain close allies.

In economic issues, "what we agree with the president of Russia, (Putin's cabinet) flatly rejects and does the opposite," he said. "It is a paradoxical situation."

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Peter Graff)

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