Russia's natural gas behemoth OAO Gazprom said Thursday that Belarus must pay European rates for its gas, putting the two nations on a potential collision course.
Pro-Moscow Belarus now pays a rock-bottom price of roughly $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian natural gas. Belarus is the only former Soviet republic that did not get higher rates from Moscow last year.
Oil and gas analyst Oleg Maximov with the Troika Dialog investment bank in Moscow called Gazprom's stance a "bargaining chip" to acquire control over Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz, which also carries Russian gas to lucrative Western markets.
Russia has long been negotiating with Minsk to net a controlling stake in Beltransgaz, which would see Gazprom achieve a goal of cementing control over its transit routes, he said.
"It's a political question, at the end of the day it will be decided between the two presidents at the political level," Maximov said.
The two signed a union treaty in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties but stopped short of creating a single state.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, a pariah in the West for his crackdown on dissent, has rejected a scenario Putin floated in 2002 under which Belarus would essentially be absorbed by Russia. Moscow, for its part, has become increasingly impatient about subsidizing Belarus' ailing, Soviet-style economy.
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