Lukashenko Blasts "Lies" After Gas Deal Signed

MINSK - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said Saturday that his government had ratified all documents to set up a trade pact sought by Moscow, a day after the countries signed a contract on new fees for Russian gas transit to Europe.

Gazprom agreed with Belarussian pipeline operator Beltransgaz on a new transit tariff of $1.88 for shipments of 1,000 cubic meters of gas through 100 kilometers of pipeline.

Lukashenko, a former top Kremlin ally who has since become one of Moscow's harshest critics, dramatically raised the stakes during the latest dispute over gas pricing with Moscow last month.

Russia triggered the dispute when it said Belarus owed it about $200 million for gas deliveries, accusing its neighbor of underpaying for supplies from the start of the year and of ignoring the higher rates set for 2010.

Supplies resumed after Minsk paid the bill, but Belarus retaliated by threatening to cut off Russian flows to Europe if Gazprom did not pay more for transit.

The contract signed Friday also settled the issue of supply pricing, stipulating that Belarus pay Russia $169 per 1,000 cubic meters supplied in the first quarter of 2010; $185 for the second quarter; and $193 to $194 for the third quarter, up from the $150 Belarus had been paying.

Gazprom has a 50 percent stake in Beltransgaz, which it acquired in 2007 in the wake of a similar gas pricing dispute.

Analysts have said the latest spat was meant to punish Lukashenko, criticized in the West for authoritarian rule, for not joining a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan and for giving refuge to former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Last week, Russia and Kazakhstan launched their customs union in the first step toward creating a common market for 160 million people, a plan that has sparked criticism from the West over protectionism.

Russia said the door was still open for Belarus, despite the recent dispute, but Lukashenko said Saturday that Minsk had ratified all documents.

"I must tell you that as far as the customs union is concerned, we are not behind Russia or Kazakhstan even by half a step or by a millimeter," Lukashenko said.

He repeatedly attacked Gazprom and Russian state media for their coverage of the latest gas crisis.

"What we have seen recently were huge lies about what was going on with debts. No one said that Gazprom owed us more," Lukashenko said. Gazprom, the state gas export monopoly, had long denied that it owed money to Belarus but later said Minsk had blocked its payments.

"They [in Russia] are rudely but professionally falsifying everything we say and make us look like idiots. Do they expect me to be silent?" he asked.


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