Tense countdown to Russia-Belarus 'gas war' begins
Source: Agence France-Presse
by Sebastian Smith
December 28, 2006
MOSCOW (AFP) - The tense countdown to Russia's threatened cutting of gas supplies to Belarus, which could also hit deliveries to western Europe, has entered its final hours of confrontation over pricing.
Negotiations continued in Moscow Thursday, said Sergei Kupriyanov, spokesman for Russia's state-controlled monopoly Gazprom.
He refused to give details of the talks, slightly more than three days before a deadline laid down by Russia which is causing concern in the
Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller has warned that gas supplies to Belarus will be turned off at 10:00 am in Moscow (0700 GMT) on Monday if Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic, does not agree to a more than doubling of price.
With Gazprom and Belarus both warning of a knock-on effect for western European customers who rely on Belarus as a transit point for Russian gas, the crisis increasingly resembles the showdown between Russia and Ukraine at New Year's 2006.
"A second gas war has been declared," said the respected Vedomosti business daily in Moscow. "Belarus will be cut off, like Ukraine."
The European Union, where Russian imports accounted for 24 percent of total gas requirements in 2005, is watching closely.
"I call on the two parties to reach as soon as possible a satisfactory agreement that does not put in question gas transits to the EU," Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said in a statement.
"The Commission is following the situation very closely since it may affect gas supplies to the European Union."
Gazprom accuses Belarus of preparing to siphon off gas destined for Europe in the event of a cut to its domestic supplies and has warned that compensation for a loss in volumes might be impossible.
Belarus argues that if it is unable to agree with Gazprom on a new contract for its domestic supplies in 2007, then the contract governing transit of Russian gas westward will also become void.
Gazprom says the price increase would bring Belarus' fee closer to international standards and away from Soviet-style subsidies, while critics accuse the giant company of using energy as a weapon to bring neighbouring countries under Kremlin dominance.
Ironically, the dispute pits Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko against the one major country that supports his authoritarian regime.
In contrast, Gazprom's strong-arm tactics in Ukraine 12 months ago, culminating with the brief cut-off in gas, were widely seen as part of a Kremlin strategy to weaken strongly pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.
The current crisis is on a smaller scale than the Ukraine episode, since just 20 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe go through Belarus, compared to 80 percent through Ukraine.
Last winter was also one of the coldest recorded in Europe.
So far, this winter is one of the mildest and so demand for energy is lower. According to the European Union, reserves are big enough to deal with any temporary shortfall.
Russia's media predicted that Belarus, a country of 10.3 million people sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, will find the cost too high to maintain defiance for long.
"Unpredictable he may be, but Lukashenko will not continue the conflict with Russia for long," Vedomosti quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying, suggesting that Lukashenko might accept a compromise in which Belarus took a loan from Moscow that covered the increased gas price.
However, commentators in Belarus said the country was ready to stand firm.
"In the end they will come to a deal. Belarus has its own cards in this fight -- transit, Russian military bases stationed on its territory, political relations," said analyst Andrei Fyodorov.
Belarus currently pays Gazprom a highly subsidised 46.68 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres of gas and Gazprom originally demanded an increase to 200 dollars, which is closer to western European prices, unless Belarus agreed to sell 50 percent of its pipeline operator Beltransgaz.
This would give the Russian state-owned giant an important strategic foothold on the European Union's eastern border.
Gazprom has since reduced that demand to 105 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres -- 75 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres in cash payments, plus the equivalent of another 30 dollars in shares of Beltransgas.
Belarus is so far refusing to accept the deal.
"Russia is not only after extra revenues, but wants to take under control certain parts of the property in neighbouring countries," Belarussian parliament deputy Anatoly Krasutsky said. "The government should have diversified its energy sources earlier, but you learn by your mistakes."