MOSCOW -- Russia and Belarus traded bitter words yesterday in a dispute over natural gas prices that threatened to damage relations between the longtime allies and disrupt supplies to other European countries.
The Russian state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom reiterated a threat to cut off natural gas for Belarus on Monday if no agreement on price is reached by then, and it accused Belarus of planning to steal gas intended for European Union states by tapping into pipelines carrying Russian gas west.
That accusation came a day after the collapse of negotiations in Moscow aimed at reaching new 2007 contracts for the sale of natural gas to Belarus and for the transit of gas across that neighboring country.
Belarus' chief negotiator had triggered the accusation by telling reporters that his country had leverage in the talks because of the transit pipelines, implying that Belarus might siphon gas or shut down the flow to other countries.
Gazprom is seeking to more than double the price of gas it sells to Belarus, although the new price would remain far below that which European Union countries pay.
Belarus, meanwhile, is demanding that Gazprom pay sharply increased transit fees, which would partially offset the gas price increase.
Gazprom insists that, in the absence of a new contract, Belarus can receive no gas starting Monday morning. But Belarus has said that if no agreement is reached by Monday, it would continue to receive gas at the current price until a new contract is signed.
'Not Santa Claus'
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov, in comments reported by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, said Belarus' assertion shows that it "plans to tap Europe-bound gas in the absence of a contract."
Speaking on Russian state-run television, Kupriyanov accused Belarus of greed. "After all, Gazprom is not Santa Claus," he declared.
The standoff resembled a pricing dispute one year ago between Russia and Ukraine. In that case, Gazprom attempted to cut off natural gas supplies for Ukraine from Jan. 1 while continuing to pump gas across Ukraine to other customers.
But Ukraine continued to simply take gas until a compromise was reached.
The standoff led to disruption in supplies to European Union states as well as Ukraine and to growing European doubts about the wisdom of heavy reliance on Russian gas.
Critics of Kremlin policy charged a year ago that Gazprom was enforcing unfavorable terms on Ukraine, compared with other post-Soviet states, because of its turn toward pro-Western policies under President Viktor A. Yushchenko.
But this year, Gazprom's face-off with Belarus threatens to undermine what is still perhaps Russia's closest alliance.
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.