Russia ships gas to Belarus but new threat looms

The Associated Press

Russia's gas monopoly said Thursday it is resuming supplies to Belarus now that it has paid a $200 million bill, but the ex-Soviet neighbor is in turn threatening to stop the transit of gas on to other European countries unless Moscow settles its own debts.

The Kremlin said Alexei Miller, the chief of Russia's state-controlled Gazprom natural gas company, has told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev the company would resume supplies to Belarus.

Belarus said Wednesday it had paid the debt to Russia, but demanded in return that Moscow pay what it claims is a $260 million debt for transit of gas to the West. Belarus has threatened to cut transit of Russian gas Thursday if Moscow doesn't pay up.

Miller told Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday that the dispute arose after Belarus had demanded that Gazprom pay a higher transit fee than agreed by the contract. Putin said Gazprom must pay for transit in accordance with the contract, Russian news agencies reported.

A Gazprom spokesperson wouldn't say how the company would respond to the Belarusian demand.

Miller told Putin that overall transit shipments of Russian gas to the European Union nations fell by 20 percent Wednesday because Belarus siphoned gas intended for export.

EU member Lithuania, which gets all of its Russian gas via Belarus, reported a 40 percent drop in supplies on Wednesday, EU's energy chief Guenther Oettinger said.

He said Wednesday that neither Russia or Belarus should involve European customers in their disputes, describing the reduced supplies to Lithuania as "an attack against the whole European Union."

"We have an expectation that this crisis and this politics between Russia and Belarus should not come to Europe. We expect that contracts are contracts," Oettinger said.

He warned also that both Belarus and Russia needed a good relationship with Europe.

About 80 percent of Russian gas exported to Europe normally goes through Ukraine, while the rest is carried via Belarusian pipelines. Gazprom has insisted that the dispute with Belarus will not hurt European customers as the company can reroute gas supplies through the Ukraine transit pipeline.

Russia has cut gas supplies to both Ukraine and Belarus several times in recent years due to payment disputes. In early 2009, a cutoff to Ukraine left many Europeans without heating amid a freezing winter. The shut-downs have prompted the EU to search for alternate gas supply routes.

Russia is Belarus' main ally and sponsor, but relations between the two former Soviet countries have been strained by financial arguments.

Belarus has insisted that Russia should provide cheaper oil and gas as part of the customs union deal that is to come into force next month, but Russia has refused.

Associated Press Writer Aoife White in Brussels contributed to this report.


Partners: Social Network