- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom yesterday called for at least a threefold increase in gas prices for Belarus, a move that could strain relations between the two neighbors.

Belarus is the only former Soviet republic that did not receive a gas-price increase from Moscow last year and it is paying the rock-bottom price of roughly $47 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas.

Speaking at an energy conference in Moscow, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Alexander Ryazanov said Belarus should pay at least three times the rate it is paying now, the Interfax news agency reported.

Mr. Ryazanov’s words echoed statements last week by Gazprom officials that Belarus should pay European rates for Russian gas. Many analysts have interpreted the move as a ploy by Moscow to acquire control over Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz, which carries Russian gas to lucrative Western markets.

Analysts say the proposed price increase would cripple Belarus because its Soviet-style economy relies on cheap Russian gas to keep its exports competitive.

Gazprom has said Belarus has until the end of April to put forward its proposals.

Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties but stopped short of creating a single state.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, branded Europe’s last dictator in the West for his crackdown on dissent, has rejected a scenario Russian President Vladimir Putin floated in 2002 under which Belarus essentially would be absorbed by Russia.

Moscow has become increasingly impatient about subsidizing the ailing Belarusian economy.

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