SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP) - A new gas standoff that could worry Europe loomed Friday between Russia and an ex-Soviet state after Russian gas giant Gazprom moved closer to cutting exports supplies to Belarus.
Gazprom said it was creating a working group to look at the mechanics of drastically reducing gas supplies to Belarus, a move that would happen early Monday morning if debts were not cleared.
Gazprom says that Belarus owes it 192 million dollars (155 million euros) in unpaid debts and has said it will reduce exports by 85 percent if the debt is not settled by June 21.
Belarus in its turn accused Gazprom of owing it some 200 million dollars for gas transit to Europe, Belarus's deputy energy minister said Friday.
"By our estimates, Gazprom owes us a little over 200 million dollars for gas transit," Eduard Tovpinets, warning that "such deep cuts (as those suggested by Gazprom) may affect transit issues too."
The debt problems come at a time of increasingly thorny political ties between Moscow and Belarus's maverick strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who was once seen as a unstintingly loyal ally of Moscow.
"We have created a working group to evaluate the situation surrounding Belarus," Gazprom's chief executive Alexei Miller said on the sidelines of the Saint Petersburg economic forum, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The European Union closely watches gas disputes between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbours after a row between Moscow and Kiev led to supplies of Russian gas to Europe via Ukraine being cut off for two weeks early last year.
That dispute remains firmly etched in the minds of European policy makers as it left several EU countries deprived of gas during a freezing winter.
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko meanwhile said there had been no indication from the Belarussian side that cutting the gas supplies would cause it problems.
"The Belarussian energy ministry has given no indication of problems" arising from a cut in supplies, he said.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupryanov confirmed that the 85 percent reduction in supplies would commence at 0600 GMT on Monday if the debt were not settled.
The working group on cutting the gas would include representatives from Gazprom's production, transportation and safety divisions, he said.
But Lukashenko, paying a visit to his native Mogilev region in Belarus, expressed bewilderment over Russia's comments.
"Russia's position on deliveries of gas to Belarus is inadmissible," he said.
"You cannot behave like that towards Belarus, cutting or fixing the price of gas for others and hiking it for us."
His comments were an apparent reference to a deal agreed earlier this year between Russia and Ukraine, where Moscow gave Kiev a 30 percent discount on gas prices in exchange for prolonging the lease of a naval base.
Belarus is currently paying Gazprom 150 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres of gas.
Lukashenko has irritated Moscow by dropping his dependable loyalty to Russia in favour of a quest for closer ties for the EU. He also raised eyebrows by offering sanctuary to deposed Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Russia and Belarus have been building a single customs bloc with Kazakhstan and Lukashenko stayed away from a key meeting last month, forcing Russia and Kazakhstan to launch the customs union without Belarus.
But analysts say his room to distance himself from Moscow is limited by his resource-poor country's dependence on Russia for energy supplies.