Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 176

In a telephone conversation on September 20, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reassured his Belarusan counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka that Moscow “deems inadmissible any attempts by Western countries to exert pressure on Belarus. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and other government agencies will continue rebuffing such attempts” (Minsk Television, Itar-Tass, September 20). Yeltsin’s call provided a political backdrop to the September 21 commissioning of the first of two Belarusan sections of the Siberia-Germany gas transit pipeline. That US$ 36 billion project is one of the largest undertaken anywhere in Eurasia in recent years. The line runs from the gas-rich Yamal peninsula in northwestern Siberia, via European Russia and Belarus to the Polish-German border. The gas flow, expected to begin in 2000 at an annual rate of 14 billion cubic meters, may reach the full projected capacity of 68 billion cubic meters by 2005 when all the compressor stations will have been installed.

The first Belarusan section consists of two parallel stretches, each 210 kilometers long, which run from central Belarus to the border with Poland. Russia’s Gazprom paid the full costs of construction and used Belarusan firms as subcontractors. The same arrangements apply to the second Belarusan section, which runs 365 kilometers from the Russian border to central Belarus and is due for commissioning next year.

As a key transit country, Belarus is likely to benefit from high and stable deliveries of Russian gas, transit revenue and job-creating activities related to the pipeline. Lukashenka, who tends to equate the country with his person, hopes to become more palatable than he has been to some West European countries, once these become reliant on gas delivered via Belarus. He implied as much by remarking at the commissioning ceremony that the pipeline “offers Belarus new possibilities to interact with European countries” (Itar-Tass, Radio Minsk, NTV, PAP, September 20-23). Some Belarusan opposition leaders consider–rightly or wrongly–that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk mission chief Hans-Georg Wieck’s delicate treatment of Lukashenka is partly attributable to Germany’s preference for stability in the transit country.

The pipeline via Belarus may severely diminish the role of Ukraine as a transit country for Russian gas. Gazprom and the Russian government make no secret of their goal to bypass Ukraine to whatever extent possible in favor of Belarus. Ukraine has, in recent years, skillfully capitalized on her role as a transit country for westbound Russian gas. Kyiv has stretched out or even defaulted outright on its gas bills, siphoned off some of the gas bound for third countries and used its authority to raise the transit fees in bargaining over prices and payment schedules for Russian gas supplies. Ukraine’s arrears–including unacknowledged ones–to Gazprom currently approach US$ 2 billion, while the siphoning off is estimated at 3 billion cubic meters annually. Russia will no longer have to tolerate these practices, once the transit route via Belarus becomes fully operational.

From Kyiv’s standpoint, Russia’s dependence on the Ukrainian transit route could (and has) largely offset Moscow’s political leverage as the main supplier of fuel to Ukraine. The counterleverage will, however, be lost to Kyiv when a large part of Russian gas exports is rerouted via Belarus. This prospect underscores the urgency for Ukraine to diversify the supply sources, and for Ukraine’s Western partners to assist that effort by ensuring that Caspian oil and gas reach Ukraine and Central Europe but circumvent Russia.