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Belarus Says It Has Paid Russia Gas Debt, Demands Transit Fees

A Belarusian man carries a gas cylinder in the village of Krasnoe on June 22.
Belarus says it has paid $187 million to Russia, thereby settling its gas debt.

Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Semashka said Belarus "borrowed $200 million and today at 16:00 [local time] transferred the sum of $187 million to Gazprom to cancel our debt."

But he warned if Russia does not pay the $260 million it owes Belarus in transit fees by June 24, shipments of Russian oil and gas transiting Belarus will be cut.

Before today's settlement, Russia sharply reduced gas shipments to Belarus as a result of the ongoing debt and pricing dispute.

Earlier today, the chief of Russia's state-run monopoly Gazprom, Aleksei Miller, announced a further major cut in supplies to Belarus.

"The bad news is that Belarus has not taken any steps to settle its debt for Russian gas supplies,” he said on Russian television. “And from 10:00 a.m. [Moscow time] June 23, 2010, a reduction of Russian gas supplies to the republic of Belarus by 60 percent has been introduced."

Tightening The Screws

It was the third staged reduction in as many days. Gazprom initially reduced supplies by 15 percent on June 21 and cut them by another 15 percent on June 22. It warned Belarus it would eventually cut the deliveries by 85 percent if Belarus refused to pay off its debt.

On June 22, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered a stop to the flow of Russian gas westwards to European Union markets.

But that order does not appear to have been implemented. Gazprom's Miller today said transit gas was flowing normally through Belarus. “Consumers of Russian gas are not experiencing any problems with its supplies," Miller said.

European Commission spokeswoman Marlene Holzner later confirmed that Poland and Lithuania -- two of the EU countries most vulnerable to fluctuations in gas transiting Belarus -- were reporting normal service.

Holzner said EU Commissioner for Energy Guenther Oettinger had spoken by telephone with both Russian and Belarusian officials.

"He said that Europe must not be taken hostage in this dispute; that this is an issue between Belarus and Russia; that the [EU] Commission stands ready to ensure that factual information is being provided to and exchanged between the two sides,” Holzner said. “We request both parties to cooperate in good faith in order to resolve the issue."

Holzner also said the European Commission expects the arguing parties to fulfill their contractual obligations.

"The [EU] Commission expects that gas flows from Russia to the European Union will not be affected, that gas flows into all member states concerned [will] remain uninterrupted and that the contractual obligations will be fulfilled," Holzner said.

The EU is mindful of another "gas conflict," between Russia and Ukraine in January 2009, which saw EU citizens left without heating for almost two weeks in an exceptionally cold winter.

Russia has said it can channel gas supplies to European customers through another pipeline across Ukraine if Belarus blocks its supply line.

RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service contributed to this report. With material from agency reports.
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