Russia-Belarus gas dispute draws to a close

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A four-day energy spat between Russia and Belarus appeared to be drawing to a close Thursday as Russia resumed gas flows to Belarus and Minsk confirmed Moscow had paid it for transit fees.

Gazprom said it had restarted gas supplies to Belarus after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been informed by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller that Belarus had covered payment arrears of nearly 200 million dollars.

"There are currently no problems that would hinder gas transit and gas supplies to Belarus," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said in televised comments.

A spokeswoman for Belarus's energy ministry, Lyudmila Zenkovich, also confirmed that Gazprom had paid 228 million dollars to Belarus for gas transit, after Minsk had earlier threatened to shut down Russian gas flows to Europe over the transit debt.

Belarus had said that Gazprom owed it 260 million dollars in transit fees, however, and warned it might still reduce supplies to Europe in proportion to the unpaid amount.

Energy minister Alexander Ozerets said earlier in the day that Gazprom's payment had represented only 87 percent of Russia's outstanding debt.

Gazprom says it sees no reason to pay Belarus more for transit.

The row has raised the spectre of previous disputes over gas between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbours that reduced gas flows to European consumers.

After seeing its supplies of Russian gas through Belarus fall by 40 percent on Wednesday, Lithuania said the supply was back to normal Thursday.

"Natural gas imports into Lithuania have been fully restored," its gas transport and supply company Lietuvos Dujos said.

Russia's latest dispute with Belarus's maverick leader Alexander Lukashenko erupted Monday when Gazprom cut its gas supplies by an initial 15 percent.

It had said it would incrementally ramp up cuts to 85 percent of the normal volume in proportion to the outstanding debt. It cut supplies by 30 percent on Tuesday and by 60 percent on Wednesday.

Following Tuesday's cut, Lukashenko ordered a shutdown of Russian gas transit deliveries to Europe in retaliation, raising fears in the European Union, where member states Lithuania, Germany and Poland take Russian gas delivered through Belarus.

Gazprom's Miller said that as a result of Belarus's decision to siphon off Russian gas, European countries had received up to 20 percent less gas through Belarus on Wednesday and Thursday.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking from the mining city of Novokuznetsk, expressed regret that the dispute had soured Russia's ties with a former Soviet republic with which Moscow has enjoyed strong relations.

"There is a need to conduct negotiations with the Belarussian partners. And to clarify all the issues that so far remain in dispute -- if there is any dispute there at all -- at the negotiating table in a normal, comradely atmosphere, a business-like atmosphere," Putin said in televised remarks.

He said Belarus had nothing to complain about because it paid the lowest price of any consumer for gas anyway.

"The situation on the whole is highly deplorable because the conflict arose with the republic, the country with which Russia has special relations," he added.

The dispute centres on Belarus' refusal to accept a hike in the price it pays for Russian gas from the 150 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres it paid on average last year to 169.20 dollars in the first quarter of this year and 184.80 dollars in the second quarter.

Belarus says it sees no reason to accept a price hike since the two neighbours are working to ramp up their economic cooperation.

Lukashenko is also bitter that Russia earlier this year offered Ukraine a discount of around 30 percent on Russian gas imports, with those subsidies effectively worth 40 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

© 2010 AFP

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