By Dafydd ab Iago
Moscow notified the EU of gas cuts to Belarus, on 21 June, under the so-called 'early warning mechanism'. Russia's state-owned gas company Gazprom is seeking payment of almost US$200 billion from Minsk. Facing budgetary and economic difficulties, Belarus' embattled leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has refused to pay increased prices for gas. At 10:00 on 21 June, Russia cut supplies by 15%, with a threat to further reduce flows up to 85%.
A spokesperson for Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger stated, on 21 June, that the EU executive is "closely" following the situation, with DG TREN officials meeting with Russian Embassy energy experts. "We expect that gas transit flows to the EU from Belarus will not be disrupted by the dispute. We also expect that all the contractual obligations will be respected." The official, however, had no information as to whether gas supplies to the EU had also been cut in response by Belarus. "It is not sure whether or not we are being affected."
"We have not started talks with the Russian or Belarus side," added Oettinger's spokesperson. The EU received notification by Russia that there would be a disruption. Notification, however, came at the same time as supplies were being cut despite the EU having worked out an 'early' warning system with Russia.
Oettinger's spokesperson played down the significance of the cuts. "A cut in the gas supply to Belarus does not mean that we will be affected," she said. Some 20% of Russian gas is transported via Belarus to the EU through the (unaffected) Jamal pipeline. Only a small fraction of Russian gas delivered to the EU, albeit not via Jamal, comes through the Belarus pipeline system.
During the summer period, supplies are also used to boost gas storage in Europe. Despite the small overall significance of the gas cuts to Belarus, three EU countries might be effected. Lithuania, for instance, is wholly dependent on Russian gas deliveries via Belarus. Following the closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, in December 2009, the country's energy dependency on Russia has also increased markedly. Other countries that could, to a much lesser degree, be affected are Poland and Germany. The Commission points out that Lithuania could be supplied via Latvia if there were an interruption for more than one week.
Officially, the EU is maintaining that the discord is a 'price' dispute. "The Russians are asking for a higher price than Belarus wants to pay," stated Oettinger's spokesperson. Nonetheless, Lukashenko has fallen out very publicly with Russia's hierarchy. He has also refused to join a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan unless it pays lower energy prices. Some experts thus consider this new gas dispute as a Russian attempt to weaken Lukashenko in the run-up to elections. In theory, Belarus should hold presidential elections before February 2011. However, observers expect elections to fall much earlier than that date.