Lukashenko ‘bluffing’ on EU gas threat: Belarus opposition leader

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya arrives for a meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, 11 November 2021. [EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Thursday (11 November) said strongman Alexander Lukashenko would not follow through on threats to cut off gas supplies to Europe over an escalating conflict with the EU.

“It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it’s bluffing,” Tsikhanouskaya told AFP, urging European countries to hold firm and not communicate directly with the “illegitimate” leader.

Lukashenko had vowed Thursday to respond to any new sanctions imposed over the migrant crisis on his country’s border with Poland, including by potentially cutting off the transit of natural gas to Europe.

“If they impose additional sanctions on us… we must respond,” Lukashenko said in comments to officials in Minsk released by the presidency.

“We are warming Europe, and they are threatening us,” he said, pointing out that Russia’s Yamal-Europe gas pipeline transits through Belarus to Poland.

“And what if we halt natural gas supplies?”

Russian gas giant Gazprom has recently booked about a third of offered additional gas transit capacity via the Yamal-Europe pipeline via Poland for November and has not booked any volumes via Ukraine. The Yamal pipeline brings Russian gas to Poland and further West via Belarus.

Gazprom books fraction of gas transit capacity via Poland, ignores Ukraine

Russian gas giant Gazprom has booked about a third of offered additional gas transit capacity via the Yamal-Europe pipeline via Poland for November and has not booked any volumes via Ukraine, auction results showed on Monday (18 October).

Russia’s message appears to be that if the EU wants more gas and a return to normal prices, the solution is Nord Stream 2.

Kremlin: Nord Stream 2 start will help cap gas prices in Europe

A rapid startup of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany could help calm record-high gas prices in Europe, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, as Moscow awaits for regulatory clearance for gas flows to begin.

Pressure is building to address the plight of hundreds of migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, who are stuck at the Belarus-Poland border in freezing weather.

The West accuses Lukashenko of luring the migrants to Belarus to send them across the border, in revenge for sanctions imposed last year after a heavy crackdown on the opposition.

In a second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in two days on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the EU should start talking to Belarus again if it wants to resolve the migrant crisis, the Kremlin said.

But Tsikhanouskaya urged the EU to stand firm in its policy to shun Lukashenko.

“We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person in the country, with a criminal who committed so many tortures in Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

‘Overdue’

The 39-year-old had earlier on Thursday met President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin and attended a session in parliament to discuss the migrant crisis, where she received a standing ovation from MPs.

During the parliamentary sitting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said consequences for Belarus were “overdue”.

EU officials say they expect to approve new sanctions over the crisis next week.

Backing the planned sanctions, Tsikhanouskaya said: “I hope that the European Union considers that the hit, impact should be first of all on state organisations, state enterprises that were monopolised by Lukashenko.”

The opposition leader, who claimed victory in a disputed election last year, fled Belarus soon afterwards and has sought to rally international pressure on the Minsk regime.

Tikhanovskaya only joined the political fray after her husband Sergei — a popular blogger — was barred from registering as a presidential candidate and arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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