Gazprom: murky power games with Russia's post-Soviet neighbours take the sparkle off the country's biggest company (Photo: gazprom.ru)
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has stopped Russian gas exports to the EU after Russia made fun of his offer to pay off debt in kind.
The move caught the European Commission by surprise on Tuesday (22 June), showing up the limitations of its early warning agreements with the authoritarian governments in Moscow and Minsk.
The commission said the cut would hit 6.25 percent of total EU consumption, affecting Germany, Lithuania and Poland. Germany and Poland can suck in extra gas from Ukraine, while Lithuania can tap Latvian storage tanks. But Lithuania could be in trouble if the dispute drags out.
"Latvia can deliver for one week from storage. At the moment, we do not know what will happen after this week," a commission spokeswoman said.
The dispute escalated on Monday when Russia began to cut supplies to Belarusian consumers and mocked Minsk's offer to pay a gas bill in the form of Belarusian-made machinery. "Neither pies nor butter nor cheese nor pancakes [are acceptable either]," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said.
Mr Lukashenko responded on TV on Tuesday, saying: "I would like to inform you about the conflict which is turning into a gas war ... I ordered the government to cut the transit [from Russia to the EU] via Belarus until Gazprom pays for transit."
"The Russian leadership's statement humiliates the Belarussian people," he added. "I am sorry, when they start humiliating us with either cutlets or sausages or butter or pancakes, we perceive this as an offence to the Belarussian people."
When asked by EUobserver in a telephone press conference on Tuesday if Mr Medvedev's words had aggravated the situation, Gazprom spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov said only that the Medvedev-Lukashenko exchange "reflects their personal relationship."
The new gas row is less problematic for the EU than previous Ukraine gas conflicts because the volumes involved are much smaller and because it falls in mid-summer, a time of low consumption.
But it shows that Russia and its neighbours have failed to move on in terms of transparency and predictability in their massive gas business with the EU, despite the basket of new promises and agreements following the 2006 and 2009 Ukraine gas crises.
Russia has pulled out the stops in PR terms to make sure Belarus gets the blame. Mr Medvedev and Gazprom have more to lose in image terms because the Belarusian leader is already seen by the EU as highly unstable and is tainted by personal links to cases of vanished dissidents.
The gas "war" is as usual surrounded by a fog of accusations, counter-accusations and fast-changing numbers.
Russia has said, in a series of contradictory statements, that Belarus owes it $190 million, $195 million or $270 million for gas. Belarus has said that Russia owes it $217 million or $260 million for transit.
Gazprom's Mr Kuprianov on Tuesday said that Russia has tried to pay its bit: "We're trying to pay but Belarus is trying to increase tariffs, which brings us to a dead end in which they don't want to accept payment."