Having brought Ukraine and its unwieldy gas bill to heel through the election of the Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovich, Gazprom is seeking out the next gas deadbeat in next-door Belarus, whose leader-cum-dictator Alexandr Lukashenko has had an on-again off-again relationship with the Kremlin. Now, things appear in the off mode. Gazprom accuses the Belarus state gas transit company, Beltransgaz, not only of not paying the bill, but of fudging the numbers on how much it owns for the gas flowing through the "Friendship" pipeline. The spat puts to a growing gap between Lukashenko and the Kremlin. But, Beltransgaz is far from innocent in this affair.
Gazprom has a laundry-list of complaints against Beltransgaz.
According to AFP, Belarus's unpaid gas bill nearly tops $200 million.
In a statement sent to AFP, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said, "Beltransgaz has decided to pay for supplies not according to a contract price but according to the one determined by them unilaterally. And as a result, the January-March debt reached $137 million.
The Gazprom flack says Friday was another payment deadline missed by Belarus, clicking up the debt another $55 million.
In a speculative mood, Kypriyanov looked into his crystal ball to predict the debt could top $600 million by the end of 2010.
"The existing situation worries us," he added.
What makes the story a bit more than strange is that Gazprom owns a 50 percent stake in the company it is now demanding payment from, Beltransgaz, according to Wikipedia.
And it seems the Russian gas giant wants to swallow up Beltransgaz in much the same way the Kremlin wants to do to the Ukrainians.
This from Russia Today:
Gazprom deputy CEO, Andrei Kruglov, discussed his company’s interest in boosting its stake in the company.
“As for Gazprom’s corporate policy in the investment area, we are striving to obtain control.”
It seems the Russians are using the unpaid gas bill as leverage to pressure Minsk to fork over Beltransgaz.
It's a tactic the Russians are trying to impose on the Ukrainians as well, as the Informant has recounted.
Unpaid gas bills are nothing new to Belarus, that forgotten authoritarian outpost on Europe's eastern flanks.
In 2007, Gazprom threatened to cut gas deliveries to Belarus by 45 percent over high debt.
The crux of the issue is one of accounting.
Under the old contract that expired December 31, Belarus did not pay customs duties on oil imported from Russsia.
As Foreign Policy explains, Minsk made a tidy bit of profit reselling most of the imported oil, but refined, on to Europe.
Under the terms of the contract, Belarus did not pay customs duty on oil imported from Russia. Minsk did not use all of these oil imports domestically, however, sending much of it on to Europe and keeping the customs receipts, despite participating in a customs union with Russia. The profits from reselling Russian oil have long been an important source of hard currency for the authoritarian government of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, making up around a third of Belarus's export revenue.
In 2001, Belarus unilaterally rubbed out a contract obliging it to share the export money.
That put a big goose egg in the ledger books at the Russian gaspipeline money Transneft, not to mention the Russian state budget.
As Foreign Policy puts it:
Now, Transneft is demanding that Belarus pay full import duties for the portion of Russian oil that it resells on the European market, a demand that could cost Belarus as much as $5 billion per year. The Belarusian government argues that the Russia-Belarus customs union obviates the need for Minsk to pay duty on imports from Russia. Although deliveries through the Druzhba pipeline have not, as of mid-January, been cut off, the prospect that Transneft (whose chairman is Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, a close confidant of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) will turn off the taps to force compliance from Minsk is clearly one that has European leaders worried because the European Union imports about a third of its oil from Russia, mostly via Belarus. Already, the prospect of supply disruptions has driven U.S. crude oil prices to a 15-month high, presumably to Moscow's delight.
Lukashenko has irked Moscow to no end. His latest poke in the eye came when Lukashenko granted asylum to the former leader of Kyrgyzstan in April, after Moscow backed the new interim authorities.
Lukashenko also balked at Russian pressure to recognize the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
And with Lukashenko flittering with the idea of joining the EU's Eastern Partnership, aimed at pulling out of Moscow's orbit several post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, don't expect the Kremlin to ease up on Belarus in the gas spat.