Belarus leader slams Russian gas price hike plan

MINSK, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Belarus signalled on Saturday it was ready for a new gas dispute with Russia as its president said the country would slap higher fees on Russian gas transit to Europe if Moscow raised gas prices for Minsk.

Gas talks between Moscow and Minsk are closely watched in the West after previous pricing disputes led to cuts in Russian gas transit to Europe, especially Germany and Poland.

Russia's gas export monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM: Quote, Profile, Research) doubled prices for Belarus this year saying it could no longer subsidise the country's economy with cheap gas.

Gazprom has promised to "fine-tune" prices for Minsk for 2008 depending on global energy prices, but said they should not rise very sharply from the current $100 per 1,000 cubic metres and compared with $250 it charges in Europe.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko said on Saturday he expected prices for Russian gas to rise by 15-20 percent and added Minsk would be forced to retaliate.

"Our position is well known. It has a strong motivation and will be linked to payment for our services for the transit of Russian gas via the territory of Belarus," said Lukashenko.

"Next year, they want to raise prices by another 15-20 percent. I don't know which offence we have committed to deserve such a treatment by the Russian leadership," said the outspoken leader, who is criticised in the West for stifling the opposition and human rights.

"Gazprom is earning pretty good money here and is making a fortune on us," he added.

Gazprom, which has repeatedly said the problem of transit fees cannot be linked to issues of gas prices for Belarus, was not available for comments.