Russia, Belarus still dispute gas, transit payments

Vienna/Moscow - Russia and Belarus remained at odds Thursday in a dispute over gas and transit fees, even as each side made payments to the other intended to settle outstanding bills.

Minsk and Moscow still disagree about the amount of transit fees due Belarus, though a spokesman for Russian gas giant Gazprom claimed the dispute was all but settled.

Both sides made concessions Thursday, with Minsk paying 187 million dollars for Russian gas deliveries and Gazprom paying 228 million dollars to Belarus for transit fees.

But Belarus claimed Moscow's payment for transit fees was less than the 260 million dollars it said it was owed and threatened to curtail gas supplies across its territory if the bill was not paid in full.

While the Belarusian Energy Ministry later Thursday confirmed receipt of Moscow's payment, it didn't say whether the amount sufficed or whether Minsk would reduce the gas supplies as it threatened.

Despite the negative assessment from Minsk, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov declared the dispute settled, though he admitted that questions remained about the rate for transit.

'In our view, despite the fact that certain questions still remain, there is no reason for problems with transit or deliveries of gas for Belarus,' he said.

Gazprom wants to pay the remaining 32 million dollars Belarus says it owes only if Minsk signs a new contract for transit fees.

Russia and Belarus traded blame for the disagreement, while underlining that the two countries enjoyed an especially close relationship.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called it 'an absolutely groundless dispute' for which 'there was absolutely no reason,' and he criticized Moscow for not giving Belarus more time to pay its gas debt.

Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, speaking at a meeting on energy issues in Novokuznetsk, said that Russia had repeatedly sought a resolution to the row, but Belarus remained intransigent.

'We regret that the matter reached the point of conflict, and we hope that nothing like it will be repeated,' he said.

He said Belarus and Russia have a special relationship and no other country gets gas from Russia at such a low price.

Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko had said that confirmation of Moscow's transit payment would show that Moscow was to blame for the dispute.

'If it's confirmed that Gazprom has indeed paid the debt, then we can conclude that Gazprom has admitted that the whole fuss around the gas problem was illegal, that (Gazprom's) actions were a violation of the contract,' Semashko said.

Moscow on Wednesday reduced gas deliveries to Belarus by 60 per cent, threatening to increase that cut-off to 85 per cent if Minsk didn't pay a gas bill of 192 million dollars.

Both Lithuania and Poland, which get Russian gas via Belarus, reported reductions in the usual flows Wednesday. The levels returned to normal in Poland later Wednesday, and Thursday Lithuania said gas was being received at the full amount.

Gazprom explained the difference between the amount paid by Belarus for gas and the original amount sought by Russia as due to the link between the cost of transit across Belarus and the price structure with Belarusian gas transport company Beltransgaz.

Though past gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine have left Europe in the cold, the European Union's executive has said this is not a danger with Belarus, as only 6.25 per cent of the EU9s total gas consumption is sourced from that country.

Belarus' opposition to Russia's initiative of a three-way customs union with Kazakhstan is reportedly at the centre of the current dispute.


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