By Dafydd ab Iago
Speaking to the Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, Uladzimir Syamashka, Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger did not receive any clear answer as to whether or not supplies of Russian gas to the EU will be cut by Minsk. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko had previously announced gas transit to the EU will be blocked as a response to Russia's previous cuts over a payment dispute. Despite Belarus' threat, the Commission confirmed the three EU countries concerned, Poland, Germany and Lithuania, had not been affected as of 8:00 CET, on 23 June.
Gas flows to Belarus from Russia are now down to 60% of normal levels
Following reductions, on 21 and 22 June, of 15% each, Gazprom has now brought the level of gas flowing to Belarus down to 60% of its normal level as of 10:00 Moscow time, on 23 June. Speaking to both the Russian energy minister and Belarus' deputy prime minister, Commissioner Oettinger stated, on 23 June, that Europe must not be taken hostage.
"This is an issue between Belarus and Russia," Oettinger told the Syamashka and Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko. Oettinger further stressed that the Commission stands ready to ensure that "factual" information is being provided and exchanged between the two sides.
"We request both parties to cooperate in good faith in order to resolve the issue," Oettinger told the two in separate telephone conversations. "The Commission expects that gas flows to the EU will not be affected and that contractual obligations will be fulfilled."
Oettinger also asked Syamashka what the country's future plans are. "He did not get a clear answer," admitted the commissioner's spokesperson. The Belarus deputy prime minister neither confirmed nor denied press reports that President Lukashenko had ordered gas supplies to Europe to be cut.
No to Soviet-style barter
For its part, Gazprom rejected a return to what it terms "Soviet-style" barter practices. Belarus had offered payment of its debt in kind. "We have given up all barter payment schemes we had - on the request of our European interlocutors. There is no point in returning to Soviet-style practices again," said the company in a statement. And whilst admitting that some transit issues remain to be settled, it adds that this is how the system "works". Belarus, however, should first settle with Gazprom the sum of US$192 million (?155 million) in unpaid debts.
Gazprom further stated that it is not the first time they have sent their Belarus colleagues warnings as foreseen in the current delivery agreement. Warnings, says Gazprom, were sent in March and April. Early in June, the state-owned Russian gas company promised "another two weeks".
The pipeline currently affected by the reduction of gas flows is the Torzhok-Minsk-Ivatsevichi pipeline that runs from a gas metering station at Smolensk. Whilst Belarus President Lukashenko has announced gas transiting to the EU will be blocked, it is unlikely to mean that 20% of Russian gas (ie that normally transited through Belarus to Europe) will not reach its European customers. Russian gas sent via Belarus to Europe mostly flows through the Belarus section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline, which has a capacity of up to 33 billion cubic metres per year. Of the three European countries receiving gas via Belarus, Poland and Germany can be supplied via Ukraine. Lithuania can be provisioned through Latvia. "With the current warm weather the pipelines are not overloaded and such rerouting should be easily done," notes Gazprom.