Rift threatens Belarus ties with Russia after gas supply is cut during -20C winter

Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko denounced Russia's "act of terrorism" after Moscow cut off gas supplies when freezing temperatures gripped the former Soviet republic this week.

Belarus, which until now has pushed for a union with Russia, depends on Russian gas for its energy supplies. Until now Moscow has provided its impoverished neighbour with gas at Russian domestic prices - a quarter of the international market price.

However, Belarus was indignant that Russia wanted to double the price to nearly $50 (£26) for 1,000 cubic meters of gas, still around half the market price of some $110 (£58). Belarus refused to sign a new contract or pay an outstanding $25m (£13.2m) gas bill.

Important pipelines for Russia's gas supply to Poland, Germany and Lithuania run through Belarus, and Mr Lukashenko gambled that Russia would not jeopardise those supplies or leave Belarusians without heat during the country's worst cold snap this winter with temperatures of minus 20 degrees centigrade.

As the disagreement worsened, Belarus even began to siphon off gas intended for Poland.

But on Wednesday Russia's gas giant, Gazprom, turned off the taps. The move stunned ordinary Belarusians who, for years, have been told by Mr Lukashenko that their two countries have a joint destiny.

Mr Lukashenko declared in 1996 that he wanted to join his country to Russia in a merger he hoped would catalyse the formation of a new Soviet Union, and signed an agreement to that effect with the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

The Belarusian journalist and political analyst Alexander Lukashuk said yesterday: "The Belarusian population has been living in a dream world of the old Soviet Union. Now it's been rudely woken up. I think the love affair with Moscow is over and the union plans are finished."

Often described as Europe's last dictator, Mr Lukashenko has Soviet autocratic style; he has crushed political opposition and extended his term as president, and is implicated in the disappearance and presumed murders of political opponents.

Mr Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, has been reluctant to embrace a union with an economic basket case that would cost Russia billions of dollars. He has also shied away from tainting his own precarious human rights and democratic credentials by associating too closely with Mr Lukashenko.

Despite previous defiant statements that he would not be intimidated by threats to cut the gas supplies, Mr Lukashenko yesterday buckled and signed an agreement on Russia's terms that restored gas supplies until the end of this month. Mr Lukashenko made clear he was furious and is reassessing their countries' relationship.

He has warned that many agreements were now in jeopardy and has demanded the return of the Belarusian ambassador in Moscow. He also instructed his government to draw up a list of options for retaliation against Moscow.

Andrei Illarionov, Mr Putin's adviser on economic questions, blamed Belarusian authorities for the dispute and said that Gazprom had acted leniently and "could be accused of softness" for selling at half world prices to Belarus.

Many political observers, such as Mr Lukashuk, believe the real cause of the dispute was Belarus's refusal to sell a controlling interest in its gas pipelines to Russian companies. He thinks this week's crisis was a warning shot from Gazprom, closely linked to the Russian government.

The Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said: "The differences between Belarus and Russia will expand quickly and finally, Lukashenko will turn to the Western community, to immediate neighbours Lithuania and Poland, and ask them to help save the freezing Belarusian population and idea of Belarusian independence."

The events sent a shudder through Poland, which receives half its supplies via the Belarus pipeline. There was widespread panic that many in the country would be deprived of gas.

Polish politicians have demanded an urgent review of their country's energy policies. Currently, they depend heavily on Russian oil and gas that pass through pipelines traversing potentially unstable regions.

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