Russia has imposed further gas supply cuts on Belarus in a dispute over unpaid fuel bills. But Minsk says it has paid the sum in full and has threatened to block the transit of Russian gas to the rest of Europe.
Belarus claims that Russia owes it money for gas transit
Belarus said on Wednesday that it has paid its debt to Russian gas giant Gazprom in full and has threatened to shut down the flow of gas to Europe, if the Russian supplier does not pay transit fees by Thursday.
The announcement comes on the heels of a move by Russia to reduce even further its gas deliveries to Belarus for what it says are unpaid bills.
The latest cuts in supplies to Belarus mean the country is currently only receiving 60 percent of normal supplies. At issue is an unpaid debt of 156 million euros ($192 million).
Alexei Miller, chief executive of Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, announced the supply reduction on Wednesday but stressed that energy consumers in other parts of Europe had nothing to worry about.
Lukashenko said that supplies to Europe would be cut
"Transit of Russian gas through the territory of Belarus is being implemented in the full amount and consumers of Russian gas do not experience any problems with it," he said. "The bad news is the Belarussian side is undertaking no action to settle the debt for Russian gas supplies."
Threat of gradual reduction
Gazprom decreased its output to Belarus by 15 percent on Monday, and upped it to 30 percent on Tuesday before taking its latest action. The company has said it will continue the gradual reduction in supplies up to 85 percent of normal volume.
In response, Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko claims that Moscow owes Minsk 212 million euros in transit fees for distributing gas to the rest of Europe in the first half of 2010.
Russia supplies some 25 percent of Europe's energy needs
Belarus has said, however, that an unspecified amount of gas was being diverted to meet domestic needs.
The European Union, meanwhile, has strongly condemned Minsk for cutting gas supplies to Lithuania on Wednesday. EU Energy Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, said that Lithuania registered a 40 percent drop in supplies from Belarus.
"If there is a problem for Lithuania, it is not only a problem for this one member state; it is an attack against the whole of the Europen Union," Oettinger warned.
Russia and Belarus have clashed over energy prices and customs duties in recent months and close ties between the countries have become strained as Belarus has shown signs of developing closer links with the EU.
On Tuesday, Lukashenko repeated a request for more time to pay the debt. He said he had asked Russia to factor in its own debt to Minsk, but added that Moscow had not been willing.
"This can only mean on thing," he said. "They want to put us under pressure."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Belarus had been warned several times of its outstanding debt.
Russia, the world's largest energy exporter, supplies some 25 percent of Europe's gas needs, with some four-fifths flowing through Ukraine and one-fifth through Belarus.
Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa/Reuters/AFP)
Editor: Andreas Illmer