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20/12/2006 | Russia: An Energy Cutoff for Belarus, But Not for Europe

Stratfor Staff

Russia could cut off natural gas supplies to Belarus on Jan. 1 if the two are unable to agree upon a contract for delivery and pricing.

 

Unlike the January 2006 natural gas cutoff in Ukraine, this disagreement is more financial than political in nature, and Russia is in a good position to pressure Belarus to comply with its terms. While Europe would be mildly affected by the possible cutoff, Belarus has little alternative for energy sources and will have to eventually bow to its neighbor.


Negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Aleksandr Lukashenko ended unsuccessfully Dec. 15, as the two were unable to agree upon natural gas deliveries to Belarus for 2007 or any other issues of contention. Consequently, until a contract is concluded on its terms, the Russian state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom could reduce supplies beginning Jan. 1, 2007 -- possibly affecting deliveries of natural gas to Europe.

Minsk is already under great pressure from Moscow, which wants to increase the price for natural gas from the current $46.68 to $200 per 1,000 cubic meters and impose a $24.65 per barrel duty on crude exports, both beginning in 2007. Belarus has no other sources of energy, except for a negligible amount it might obtain from Ukraine via Soviet-era pipelines. Belarus stands to lose almost $3 billion from the natural gas rate hikes and $1.7 to $2 billion from the crude duties, jeopardizing the government's bottom line and forcing the state to raise funds through the sale of assets.

It is well known that Lukashenko and Putin do not get along. Furthermore, the proposed Russian-Belarusian Union State
will look more like a domination of Belarus by Russia than a union of equals -- Russia has been subsidizing Belarus since the country's independence and would be required to finance most of the unification's details, but Moscow does not want to tolerate Lukashenko's audacious behavior any longer and is not in the mood to cut him any slack. However, for Russia, the natural gas standoff is not as much political as it is financial.

Gazprom knows that Belarus has nowhere else to go for natural gas and will push for higher energy prices and the forced sale of Belarusian state-controlled energy assets such as the Beltransgaz natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Cutting off supplies to Belarus is part of that pressure, and Minsk has little choice but to succumb eventually, accept the higher prices and sell Gazprom more and more infrastructure in order to keep the heat on. From the Russian point of view, this is an effective tool against Minsk.

The Europeans are watching these developments with more than a twinge of nervousness. On Jan. 1, 2006,
a similar price dispute between Gazprom and Ukraine resulted in Gazprom reducing its exports via its Ukraine-Europe trunk line by the amount of natural gas that they normally supplied to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians kept tapping the line, however, and reductions in deliveries were recorded throughout Central and Western Europe. Furthermore, a previous Russian-Belarusian price dispute in July 2003 (which, coincidentally, involved the Beltransgaz pipeline) resulted in a temporary reduction in deliveries to Poland and Germany.

Luckily for the Europeans, the natural gas throughput of the Belarus line is much smaller than Ukraine's -- and more to the point, Belarus' demand is much smaller than Ukraine's. In the worst-case scenario, Belarusian disruption will amount to "only" about 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) compared to the 66 bcm that Ukraine siphoned off.

This is relatively good news for Europe -- except Poland, the country that would be most affected by a cutoff. However, even the Poles are not likely to suffer much. Poland would be able to rely on its stored supplies for almost two months, assuming the storage tanks are filled, but Belarus can last no longer than a month on its stored natural gas. After that month, Minsk will want to make a deal with Moscow. Meanwhile Ukrainian pipelines also reach Poland, so the cutoff would still bad news, but only for Belarus.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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