Ukraine can transit more gas through its territory to the EU to compensate for the reduced gas flow across Belarus, which resulted from the latter's payment conflict with Russian monopolist Gazprom, Kiev announced yesterday (23 June).
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko called on 22 June a halt to gas flows to Lithuania, Poland and Germany following a payment dispute with Russian monopolist Gazprom, speaking of a "gas war" (EurActiv 23/06/10).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told gas monopoly Gazprom to cut gas supplies to Belarus by 15% on 21 June, pressing its neighbour to pay mounting debts and raising fears of disruptions to deliveries to Europe (EurActiv 21/06/10).
Russia supplies a quarter of Europe's gas needs and uses Belarus, which borders European Union member Poland, as one of two key transit routes for oil and gas to the continent. Some 20% of the Russian gas exported to the EU crosses Belarus. 6.25% of gas consumed in the EU is delivered via Belarus.
Russia-Belarus relations have soured since they failed to agree unified customs rules and Minsk gave refuge to ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, despite Moscow's support for the new Kyrgyz leadership.
Politicians in the European Union and the United States have repeatedly accused Russia of using its vast energy resources to bring its neighbours to heel, though Moscow says it is simply trying to secure market prices for its energy supplies.
Several EU countries were badly affected by the January 2009 gas crisis, when Russia stopped supplying gas to Ukraine over a payment dispute (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'Pipeline politics').
Ukraine can increase the transit of Russian gas within days or even hours to help the EU avoid problems, Ukraine's Energy Minister Yuri Boiko told the Brussels press after meeting Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger.
"At the same time, we hope that the conflict will be solved soon," he said.
Any repetition of the gas crises that occurred between Ukraine and Russia several times in the past can now be ruled out, Boiko said.
The Ukrainian minister explained that his country's new leadership had cleaned up its relations with Gazprom and any repetition of the 2009 January gas crisis was now impossible.
"We have a very clear situation in relations with Gazprom - we pay for gas on time, and Gazprom diligently pays for transit. All decisions were taken without any politics involved, and they are beneficial economically to all participants. In our relations with Russia today there are very effective mechanisms, which are pretty clear to our European partners," Boiko said.
Oettinger said he was concerned about cuts in gas supplies to Lithuania, as Lithuanian authorities reportedly confirmed that Russian gas supplies via Belarus had decreased by around 50%.
"International commitments on gas supply must be respected unconditionally. Gas cuts as some of our member states are witnessing now are not acceptable. This is an affront against the whole European Union."
A Commision paper seen by EurActiv mentions contacts between Brussels and Moscow, confirming fears that that the reduced gas supplies to Belarus could increase to 85% by 25 June if the issue of the outstanding debt was not resolved.
"Should there be prolonged disruption, however, Lithuania may face demand reductions, as it is 100% dependent on Russian supplies transited through Belarus through one single entry point," the document reads.
Oettinger's services report that they have requested the natural gas industry associations (Eurogas and GIE) to establish a list of experts for the purpose of establishing a monitoring mission.
However, Oettinger insists that Europe must not be taken hostage in this dispute. "This is an issue between Belarus and Russia," the document insists.
A similar situation occurred over the January 2009 Ukrainian crisis, whereas Brussels did not take sides or place blame on either side.
In the meantime, Poland obtained EU support for expanding its gas storage capacity by 60%, the press reported.
A Gazprom communique says that its partner in Belarus who owes the Russian monopolist the money is Beltransgaz, a company owned 50% by Gazprom itself. "But this does not cancel the commercial basis of relations between the two companies," the statement adds.
Gazprom also explains that it rejected repayment in kind, as proposed by Kiev (see EurActiv 23/06/10), because this was against business practices.
Asked why Gazprom would not cancel Belarus's debt, as Gazprom owes the country a similar amount in transit fees, the monopolist answered in a more obscure manner:
"Without going into the details of the contract, the fact is that not only the money issues have to be settled (i.e. the sums nearly cancelling each other out), but that the parties should also have the same understanding of the amount of services provided for that money. Furthermore, the relevant Acts of Acceptance need to be signed," Gazprom stated.