Belarus' Lukashenko says Russia will not significantly raise gas price

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko expressed confidence Friday that Moscow will not significantly raise the price his country pays for Russian gas, a defiant statement that followed warnings that the rate could skyrocket.

"I don't think the Russian leadership will take the step of a serious increase in gas prices," Lukashenko said, dismissing statements from Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom about potential price hikes as meaningless "chatter."

Gazprom has raised prices this year for other former Soviet republics, but has maintained a rock-bottom rate of roughly US$47 (Ђ39) per 1,000 cubic meters for ally Belarus a decision widely seen as politically-motivated support for the authoritarian leader who won a third term last month in a vote widely dismissed as undemocratic and fraudulent.

Shortly after the vote, Gazprom officials said Belarus should pay European rates, and a deputy chairman of the company called for at least a threefold increase in the price. 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.

Gazprom has said Belarus has until the end of April to put forward proposals on the gas trade.

Lukashenko depends heavily on cheap Russian gas and oil to buoy his nation's fragile, largely centrally-controlled economy and maintain popularity in the nation of 10 million, where anger over the election that extended his iron-fisted 12-year rule sparked unprecedented street protests and further isolated his government from the West.

Lukashenko warned that by increasing the gas price, Russia would "push Belarus from its market" and violate principles of cooperation between the two mostly Slavic ex-Soviet republics, which signed a union agreement a decade ago that has strengthened political, economic and military ties.

"If there are unequal conditions, what kind of union-building can be discussed?" said Lukashenko, who used recent media speculation that he could agree for Belarus to become part of Russia in exchange for low gas prices to assert independence.

"I have sworn: we will create a union with Russia, but we do not intend to become part of any other state," he said.

Lukashenko also lashed out at the European Union for slapping a travel ban on him and 30 other officials to protest the election and the arrests of hundreds of people during and after the vote, saying Belarus would not "blacklist" EU officials but would likely prevent some from entering the country.

The Belarusian Foreign Minister had warned Monday that it would respond in kind to the visa ban, reports AP.

O.Ch.