Author : DPA
Minsk - Belarusian officials on Tuesday called on Brussels to revoke a travel ban imposed on President Aleksander Lukashenko, and to reconsider a stalled plan to build gas pipelines connecting Russian producers with the West. "The time has come to remove these barriers, which prevent the development of normal relations between Belarus and the European Union, said Andrei Popov, spokesman for Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Popov's remarks at a Minsk press conference were the first official response to a Monday European Union decision to lift at least until January a travel ban on 36 senior Belarusian officials.
The EU put the ban into effect in 2007 in response to human rights violations allegedly committed by the regime of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko.
A ban on Lukashenko's travel to EU nations, as well as most developed nations worldwide, remains in effect.
Belarus remained open to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across its territory increasing Russian capacity to deliver product to Europe, said Sergei Sidorskiy, Belarus' Foreign Minister, according to a Belapan news agency report.
Minsk has long pushed the idea of increasing the capacity of natural gas pipelines across Belarus, as an alternative to shipping the fuel through Ukraine.
Some 80 per cent of Russia's natural gas exported to Europe crosses Ukrainian territory. Price disputes between the countries have twice disrupted supplies to Europe, most recently in early January for more than two weeks.
The Belarusian alternative, the Yamal-Europe line, is "politically reliable and economically sound," Sidorskiy said. Currently some 10 per cent of Russian gas arrives to European markets via Belarus' low- capacity pipeline system.
Lukashenko in recent years has struggled to maintain Belarusian economic growth in the face of a near total absence of foreign investment, and a largely centrally-planned economy.
The initial stage of the Yamal-Europe project was begun in 1996 and completed in 1999. Expansion of Belarusian gas transport capacity has been frozen since the mid-1990s, after Lukashenko tok power.
Were funding to be made available Belarus' pipeline system could substantially enhance its capacity in 18 months "at a minimal cost," Sidorskiy said.
Independent energy analysts have estimated the probable cost of expanding the Yamal-Europe line with larger-bore pipe and more powerful pumping stations at about 2.6 billion dollars, Belapan reported.
Once the upgrades were operational Russia's capacity to send natural gas to Europe would increase by some 20 per cent, Sidorskiy claimed.