Hockey Precedes Belarus Gas Talks

ReutersA traffic police officer, dressed in a camel costume as part of a safe driving program, giving directions in Minsk.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will meet President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday, after squaring off with Gazprom in both gas price negotiations and a hockey game.

Ahead of talks over the price Belarus will pay for gas deliveries next year, Lukashenko said the price Gazprom is asking, $200 to $240 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, was too high for his country's flagging economy.

"We cannot accept this price," he said in an interview published on his official web site last week. "With falling revenues from our economy, we will simply be unable to pay."

Belarus is paying an average of $120 per 1,000 cubic meters this year. Belarussian First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said Friday that Minsk was "fighting for $140."

Gazprom expects to sell 22.2 billion cubic meters of gas to Belarus next year, meaning revenues of at least $4.4 billion at the price Lukashenko says the state-owned gas giant is asking.

A Gazprom spokesman on Friday would not name the price the company is asking.

A five-year contract signed by the countries in 2006 calls for a 20 percent discount in 2009 on the price Gazprom charges its European Union customers. Gazprom Export chief Alexander Medvedev said last week that the average EU price would be at least $260 per 1,000 cubic meters next year.

Russia and Belarus have signed an agreement on becoming a "union state." The project has remained largely on paper, however, as the official bodies for the union have a small budget and one or both sides have balked at greater integration over policy differences.

In the latest example, Belarus has yet to follow Russia's lead in recognizing the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Belarus has, however, backed Russia in its opposition to a U.S. plan to deploy an anti-missile defense shield in Central Europe.

Alexander Fadeyev, a researcher at the CIS Institute, a think tank concentrating on former Soviet republics, said it was unlikely Lukashenko would be looking to offer recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in exchange for lower gas prices.

Such a move would undermine Lukashenko's efforts to improve relations with the United States and Europe, which have slapped sanctions on his country over harassment of political opponents, Fadeyev said.

Belarus is looking both ways for economic help, with Lukashenko saying in a nationally televised interview broadcast Friday that Minsk is asking the United States for a $5 billion loan. He added that he was confident the country would receive a $2 billion loan for which it had applied to the International Monetary Fund to withstand the effects of the global economic crisis.

Minsk recently announced that it had received a $2 billion loan from Russia.

Ahead of the talks with Gazprom, Lukashenko took to the ice Friday as part of a World Stars team facing a team representing Gazprom export.

An avid hockey player, Lukashenko was joined by such stars as Igor Larionov and Jari Kurri. The team lost 9-5 to a squad that included Gazprom Export's Alexander Medvedev.