Russia rejects Belarus offer of pipeline operator

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia's top energy official on Friday turned down an offer to buy Belarus' gas pipeline operator and an oil refinery in exchange for lower energy prices, saying the deal did not make economic sense.

In a surprise move, President Alexander Lukashenko, whose ex-Soviet nation is heavily dependent on Russian subsidies, said Thursday that Belarus was ready to give Moscow a controlling stake in the country's top energy assets -- gas pipeline operator Beltransgaz and the Mozyr oil refinery.

The offer came after Russia put pressure on Belarus, saying it underpaid for gas supplies and the nation's gas debt -- already totalling almost 200 million dollars since the start of the year -- could triple by the year's end.

But Igor Sechin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's powerful deputy in charge of energy, said the offer did not interest Russia, whose state-owned gas giant Gazprom already owns 50 percent of the Belarussian gas pipeline operator.

"Gazprom now has 50 percent. It paid 2.5 billion dollars for it but there is no great economic sense for Gazprom in this investment," the RIA-Novosti and Interfax news agencies quoted Sechin as saying.

"We believe that we overpaid for the 50 percent anyway."

Sechin added that Belarus had not made an official offer yet.

Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko expressed similar reservations earlier this week, saying that purchasing the Belarussian gas pipeline operator would not solve existing energy problems between the two countries.

Russia and Belarus are building a customs union but relations have been under strain in recent years as the two ex-Soviet nations frequently wrangle over energy prices and trade issues.

Gazprom said later in the day that Belarus should pay off its debt to Russia before the two countries could continue any energy talks.

"We still have not received an answer to a simple question: when will the debt be paid?" Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said.

"We believe that our Belarussian colleagues should fully carry out their contractual obligations and only on this basis can we discuss proposals on the further development of cooperation," he said in a statement.

Gazprom last week accused Beltransgaz of underpaying for Russian gas deliveries. As as a result, the Belarussian gas debt amounts to 192 million dollars and can go up to 600 million dollars by year's end, the company said.


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