Moscow stops oil ex­ports to Be­larus as nasty price dis­pute es­ca­lates

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Michael Mainville

MOSCOW — Rus­sia on Jan. 8 halted oil ex­ports to Be­larus amid a bit­ter trade dis­pute be­tween Moscow­andMinsk,cut­tin­goff­sup­plies to sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries and high­light­ing con­cerns over Rus­sia’s re­li­a­bil­ity as an en­ergy sup­plier.

Ac­cus­ing Be­larus of steal­ing oil headed for Europe, Rus­sia sus­pended ex­ports via the Druzhba (“Friend­ship”) pipe­line, halt­ing sup­plies to sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ger­many and Poland.

Au­thor­i­ties in Be­larus said oil was taken as a form of tran­sit pay­ment im­posed on Jan. 1 that Moscow has re­fused to pay.

The halt in oil ex­ports comes a year af­ter Rus­sia cut off sup­plies of nat­u­ral gas to Ukraine be­cause of aprice dis­pute, dis­rupt­ing sup­plies to parts of Europe dur­ing a chilly Jan­uary 2006.

The oil cut­off is un­likely to cause a re­peat of last year’s panic over gas sup­plies be­cause Euro­pean re­finer­ies typ­i­cally carry sev­eral months of in­ven­tory.

Nev­er­the­less, the cut­off re­newed con­cerns over Rus­sia’s will­ing­ness to use its vast oil and gas ex­ports as a po­lit­i­cal weapon.

It marked a ma­jor es­ca­la­tion of a cri­sis in re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and Be­larus, a coun­try long con­sid­ered one of Moscow’s clos­est al­lies.

“Be­larus has cast cau­tion to the wind by start­ing to take oil be­cause Rus­sia is not pay­ing a duty it il­le­gally im­posed. This looks like a trade war,” An­drei Sharonov, Rus­sia’s deputy eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment min­is­ter, told Ekho Moskvy ra­dio.

He warned Rus­sia was ready to take eco­nomic steps against its neigh­bor: “One must not for­get that Rus­sia is the big­gest mar­ket and No. 1 eco­nomic part­ner for Be­larus. There­fore, we have the pos­si­bil­i­ties to ap­ply mea­sures to Be­larus.”

Rus­sian pipe­line mo­nop­oly, Transneft, said in a state­ment that it had been forced to act af­ter Be­larus “be­gan tap­ping oil des­tined only for cus­tomers in West­ern Europe from the Druzhba pipe­line uni­lat­er­ally, with­out any warn­ing.”

The com­pany said Be­larus had si­phoned off 79,000 met­ric tons of oil since Jan. 6.

Be­larus in­sisted it was not to blame for the cri­sis and was act­ing le­git­i­mately.

“The Be­laru­sian side is not at fault for the drop in pres­sure at the en­trance of the Druzhba oil pipe­line,” For­eign Min­istry spokesman An­drei Popov said. “Be­larus was forced to take mea­sures to avoid eco­nomic dam­age and a short­age of vi­tal fuel and en­ergy re­sources.”

ABe­laru­sian del­e­ga­tion headed to Moscow on Jan. 8 for ur­gent talks.

Ger­man Econ­omy Min­is­ter Michael Glos said re­serves would guar­an­tee oil sup­plies even in the event of lengthy dis­rup­tions.

But he also said the in­ci­dent demon­strated that “one-sided de­pen­den­cies must not be al­lowed to de­velop.”

Europe is heav­ily de­pen­dent on en­ergy sup­plies from Rus­sia, the world’s sec­ond-largest oil ex­porter af­ter Saudi Ara­bia.

The 2,500-mile-long Druzhba pipe­line, built in the 1960s to tie then-com­mu­nist East­ern Europe to Soviet en­ergy sup­plies, car­ries 18 mil­lion met­ric tons of oil to Poland each year and 22 mil­lion met­ric tons to Ger­many, or one-fifth of its oil im­ports.

The pipe­line has a south­ern branch that sup­plies oil to Ukraine, Hun­gary, Slo­vakia and the Czech Repub­lic.

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