Russia halts oil to Europe

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- Russia halted oil supplies sent to Germany and Poland via Belarus yesterday, as an escalating trade feud between Minsk and Moscow renewed Europe's concerns about over-dependence on Russian energy.

Moscow had to shut off oil supplies sent to Europe through the Friendship pipeline in Belarus, after it discovered Belarus had siphoned 79,000 tons of Russian oil, according to officials with Russia's Trade and Economic Development Ministry and the country's state-owned pipeline enterprise, Transneft.

Belarus officials said they diverted Russian oil from the pipeline, but only because Moscow had balked at paying Minsk transit fees for permission to use the pipeline.

The dispute put Europe once again in the position of questioning its dependence on Russia for its energy supplies. Last year, in the midst of a row with Ukraine over natural gas prices, Russia shut down gas to Ukraine for several days, which disrupted gas supplies to several European Union countries farther along the pipeline.

The EU's energy chief, Andris Piebalgs, said Moscow's oil shutdown yesterday posed no immediate risk to European energy supplies. Germany has enough oil reserves to last 130 days, and Poland has about 80 days' worth of reserves. Nevertheless, EU officials said they wanted an immediate explanation from Belarus and Russian authorities about why the shutdown occurred.

German Economy Minister Michael Glos told Agence France-Presse that Russia's latest energy dispute with a former Soviet neighbor demonstrated that "one-sided dependencies must not be allowed to develop."

Belarus' foreign ministry issued a statement saying a team of diplomats from Minsk had been dispatched to Moscow in hopes of resolving the dispute.

Unlike Russia's dispute with Ukraine's West-allied government last year, the new energy battle is between two close allies that have often teamed up to chide Western governments for meddling in the affairs of post-Soviet nations. Regarded by the West as Europe's last dictatorship, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's government depends heavily on Russia's economy and on subsidized Russian energy.

However, Russia, the world's largest natural gas producer, has been trying to do away with subsidized natural gas prices to its former Soviet neighbors. Gazprom's recent demand to more than double the price of natural gas sent to Azerbaijan prompted Azeri officials last week to halt delivery of Azeri oil to Russia through a pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

In the case of Belarus, Gazprom wanted to raise gas prices from $46 per 1,000 cubic meters to $105. Belarus balked, and Gazprom threatened to shut down gas supplies to Belarus on New Year's Day, but both sides agreed to a price of $100 and averted a shutdown.

Moscow then imposed a duty of $180 per ton of Russian oil sold to Belarus, whose economy relies heavily on the refinery industry that uses Russian oil; and Belarus announced it would charge Russia $45 per metric ton for use of the pipeline.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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