Almost exactly a year after a payment dispute with Ukraine led Russia to cut off gas deliveries to its European customers in a misguided attempt to force Kiev to pay up, a similar dispute between Russia and Belarus threatens to disrupt deliveries of Russian oil to Europe. As with the Moscow-Kiev "gas war" in January 2009, which left vast swaths of central and southern Europe without gas, the dispute with Belarus is only in part about money. It is also a reflection of the changing relationship between Russia and its one-time partners in the former Soviet Union, many of which are seeking to escape their political and economic dependence on Russia. And the implications could be serious -- not just for Russia, Belarus, and its neighbors, but also for the balance of power in Europe generally.
The Russia-Belarus dispute became public just after the new year, with the Dec. 31 expiration of an existing contract for deliveries of Russian oil to Belarus through the so-called Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline.
Under the terms of the contract, Belarus did not pay customs duty on oil imported from Russia. Minsk did not use all of these oil imports domestically, however, sending much of it on to Europe and keeping the customs receipts, despite participating in a customs union with Russia. The profits from reselling Russian oil have long been an important source of hard currency for the authoritarian government of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, making up around a third of Belarus's export revenue.