President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus says he has ordered a halt to all transit deliveries of Russian gas to Europe, in the latest move in the worsening energy dispute between Minsk and Moscow.
The move came just one day after Russian state-owned conglomerate Gazprom on June 21 began a gradual reduction of gas piped to Belarus for its own domestic use because of what it says are unpaid bills of $192 million. It has since cut those supplies further,
Lukashenka made his surprise announcement at a meeting in Minsk on June 22 with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
He said the row between the two countries over debt repayments is turning into a full "gas war," and he said the transit ban will stay until Gazprom pays what he says is a debt of $260 million in gas transit fees.
After an initial reduction of 15 percent on June 21, Gazprom announced the following day that it was delivering 30 percent less gas than usual to Belarus. Today, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller followed up by saying the figure was down to 60 percent of the normal daily volume.
The president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, said late on June 22 that the dispute was already affecting supplies to Lithuania, Poland, and Germany.
Belarusian officials had previously said that gas supplies westward to Europe would not be hindered by the bilateral dispute.
"[Belarus] had no reason to make this decision," Gazprom spokesman in Moscow Sergei Kupriyanov said. "It's not just our gas. It is our pipe, it belongs to us, we own it."
Here We Go Again
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, Marlene Holzner, said the commission expects both Belarus and Moscow to respect their "contractual obligations," and not to impede gas supplies to Europe.
She said, however, that Russia had already prepared contingency plans to send extra gas to the EU via Ukraine if necessary.
"If Belarus will really, indeed, take gas from the Yamal pipeline, which is a pipeline which has gas only for the European Union, [Russia] will deliver the gas via Ukraine to Poland and to Germany," Holzner said.
She said the European Commission is continuing to monitor the situation and is in close contact with Russia and Belarus.
Europe has fresh memories of an earlier gas dispute -- last year's payment row between Ukraine and Russia, which disrupted gas supplies to EU consumers for two weeks in midwinter.
The gas disagreement has further soured Belarus-Russia relations at a time when they are already strained. Last month, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to proceed alone on a customs-union project that was to have included Belarus. Minsk has also annoyed Moscow by giving sanctuary to deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, the director of the Belarusian analytic center Strategia, Leonid Zaika, said that the Russian leadership's exasperation with Belarus Lukashenka lies behind the gas conflict between Russia and Belarus.
Zaika said that "finally" after so many years the Kremlin has begun to clearly speak out about Lukashenka and his political future.
"This is not a conflict. It is the beginning of a new Kremlin policy in the former Soviet area," Zaika said. "They were successful in overthrowing the government in Kyrgyzstan. There was a change of leaders in Ukraine. And the Kremlin has now decided to clearly state its attitude toward Aleksandr Lukashenka and his political future."
written by Breffni O'Rourke based on RFE/RL Russian and Belarus services and agency reports