Belarus on Monday warned Europe of possible disruptions in the transit of Russian natural gas to European consumers due to the current dispute with Russia over gas debts.
Following an order from President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian energy giant Gazprom started reducing gas supplies to Belarus on Monday over the ex-Soviet country's debt of about $200 million, starting with a 15% cut in daily deliveries that is to gradually rise to 85%.
"Further cuts of gas supplies by the Russian side may lead to technical reduction of gas transit to Europe," the Belarusian Energy Ministry said in a letter to Anne Houtman, a top official in the European Commission's Directorate General for Energy and Transport.
This statement contradicts assurances the ministry issued earlier in the day, when it said transit of Russian gas to Europe would not be affected. An Energy Ministry spokesman said last week, however, that a drastic cut in gas supplies could entail problems with gas transit to Europe.
Russia warned of possible disruptions earlier on Monday, while also saying it would seek alternative routes, including via Ukraine and Poland, and did not expect deliveries to Europe to be affected.
Belarus will pay
Belarusian First Deputy Energy Minister Eduard Tovpinets said Monday his country would pay in full by June 23 for Russian gas supplied in May and settle the total debt by July 5.
Minsk has paid for Russian gas at the 2009 price of $150 per 1,000 cubic meters this year, despite increases to $169 per 1,000 cu m in the first quarter and $185 in the second quarter.
Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko pledged that Belarus will pay off the debt in two weeks.
He said: "We are not hiding that we have difficulty with currency. We have to borrow."
Despite Belarus's commitment to settle the debt, Gazprom suggested it would not relent on further cuts in supplies.
"It is clear that 15% is just the beginning, no one is going to wait two weeks. The situation will next be discussed tomorrow at 10 a.m.," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said.
Minsk wants Russia to pay transit debt
Semashko said Russia should pay Belarus $217 million - the sum he said Russia owes for the transit of gas to Europe.
"It is important that the Russian side recognizes that it owes Belarus $217 million for gas transit. If they pay $217 million we are ready to pay $187 [million]," he said, adding that it did not matter who pays first.
"We trust our partners, and if we agree that we pay Russia in the morning, and Russia pays us in the evening for the transit, there's nothing terrible about it," he said.
Kupriyanov said Gazprom's transit debt only exists because Minsk did not permit Gazprom to offset it. He said Belarus did not issue the required transit documents.
The spokesman said Gazprom expects Belarus to pay off its debt as soon as possible and implement transit commitments.
Semashko told journalists that Belarus would try to convince Russia to set gas prices similar to ones Russia uses domestically.
"Compromises need to be sought. We need prices that are close and comparable to Russian prices for gas," he said.
Gazprom seeking alternative transit routes
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Gazprom could reroute its gas transit to Europe from Belarus to Ukraine if necessary.
"If need be, we can reroute gas transit to other routes, for instance, to the Ukrainian gas transmission network," Putin said, adding that Ukraine transits 105 billion cubic meters of gas every year.
"We can transit 120, 130 [billion cubic meters] and more," he said.
Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz subsidiary Ukrtransgas said it was ready to increase Russian gas transit to Europe if the gas dispute between Russia and Belarus was not resolved.
"The Ukrainian gas transportation system is ready to take additional volumes of Russian gas," a company statement said.
Kupriyanov also said Gazprom hopes the latest dispute with Belarus will not be as "serious" or "long-drawn out" as last year's with Ukraine.
Moscow had a similar gas spat with Kiev at the start of 2009, when supplies to Ukraine were cut in a dispute that led to a two-week halt in transit of gas via Ukraine to Europe, which gets around a quarter of its gas from Russia.
The current dispute with Belarus also echoes a disagreement over oil imports at the start of the year, when Russia and Belarus entered a joint customs union with Kazakhstan and Minsk argued it should be exempt from duties on all oil imports.
Belarus eventually accepted Russia's offer of duty-free imports of oil for domestic use - about a fifth of its total imports - but won the right to increase transit fees on crude pumped across Belarus to Europe.
MINSK, June 21 (RIA Novosti)