MOSCOW (AFP) – Senior Belarussian officials have arrived in Moscow for crisis talks with Russia after a row over oil transit through Belarus disrupted supplies to several European countries.
Belarus’ embassy said Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov had arrived here for talks, as the two sides traded accusations over the cut in supplies through the Druzhba (friendship) pipeline, which accounts for about a third of total Russian oil exports.
Belarus says it is ready to negotiate over its introduction of a 45-dollar-per-tonne transit fees on oil sent through its territory to Ukraine and EU countries.
Moscow has refused to pay, saying the fees are illegal, and supplies have been disrupted to the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine.
On Tuesday the Russian oil transit monopoly Transneft blamed the disruption entirely on Belarus: “Russia didn’t cut deliveries, it was Belarus that refused to accept oil,” Transneft’s deputy chief executive Sergei Grigorev told AFP.
But a spokesman for the Belarussian transit company Gomeltransneft Druzhba said Russia was halting all supplies through the pipeline.
“Supplies of oil were stopped by the Russian side… They didn’t even inform us in advance. We’re ready to restart oil supplies to the West at any time,” said the spokesman, who requested anonymity.
The row comes despite a tradition of friendship between ex-Soviet Belarus and its giant eastern neighbour Russia.
The two countries have officially been building a “union state” and Moscow has seen Belarus as a buffer against the expansion of the NATO military alliance.
But recently relations have become strained, particularly since Moscow decided to double the price it charges Belarus for natural gas from the start of this year.
Moscow also introduced a tariff on oil exports to Belarus, which refined the cheap oil and sold it on to Western countries. In retaliation, Belarus imposed the oil transit tax.
The Russian newspaper Gazeta voiced sympathy for President Alexander Lukashenko, saying it was a response to “severe political pressure” from Moscow.
In Brussels, the European Commission said there was no immediate threat from the disruption in supplies through the Belarussian pipeline, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday the incident demonstrated the importance of diversifying energy sources.
Gazeta noted Poland’s worries about the disruption.
In Poland “it’s openly said that imports from the east are ‘unreliable’ and preparations are under way for the purchase of more expensive but reliable energy from Norway,” Gazeta said.
The paper noted however that Lukashenko lacked the Western backing given to another Russian neighbour, Ukraine, during an energy dispute last year, and said that “it would be better for everyone if the war finished” on Wednesday, when, it said, Belarussian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky was due in Moscow.
The Druzhba pipeline supplies about 20 percent of Germany’s annual oil imports, or 23.4 million tonnes in 2005, according to the German oil industry federation (MWV).
Russia has reduced the amount of oil it transits through western neighbours Belarus and the Baltic states, preferring to send oil via a new terminal near Saint Petersburg as well as around the coast of Norway — in spite of less favourable climatic conditions.
But the Druzhba pipeline remains of central importance to Russian oil exports and the cut in supplies is likely to have a major impact if sustained, said Ronald Smith, an analyst with Moscow-based Alfa Bank.
The Belarussian fee of 45 dollars per tonne of oil equalled over six dollars per barrel, or “the bulk of the profitability,” Smith said.
“The bulk of their (Russia’s) exports go through this. They do have some other export capacity,” he said, adding that the cuts would “drive down domestic prices of oil”.