Russia-Belarus Standoff Over Oil Ends, Clearing Way for Accord

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus are shown on a news broadcast in Minsk.
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus are shown on a news broadcast in Minsk. (By Sergei Grits -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 11, 2007

MOSCOW, Jan. 10 -- A standoff between Russia and Belarus that led to the shutdown of a pipeline that delivers crude oil to European Union countries ended Wednesday, after Belarus backed down and lifted a duty it had imposed on Russian fuel transiting the country.

The breakthrough came after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Wednesday afternoon to his Belarusan counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko. The Belarusan presidential press service said that the countries' prime ministers had been told "to propose ways of settling all problems and to submit them to the presidents by Friday."

Belarus's imposition of the duty led Russia to switch off the flow of oil, a move greeted with dismay in Western Europe. Leaders there wondered aloud about Russia's reliability as an energy supplier.

Oil began flowing again late Wednesday, the Associated Press reported from Minsk, the Belarusan capital, citing a senior pipeline official.

In Brussels, European Union officials on Wednesday unveiled a long-term energy plan to reduce the continent's dependence on oil and gas and limit the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

"Europe must lead the world into a new . . . post-industrial revolution, the development of a low-carbon economy," said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm. "We need new policies to face a new reality."

The E.U. plan, which will be discussed by the 27 member states in February, calls for greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That goes beyond the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which called for the E.U. overall to cut to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

The United States has refused to sign the accord, arguing that it would damage the American economy and, to be fair, should require countries such as China and India to meet similar goals.

"We are not speaking about European warming, we are speaking about global warming," Barroso said. "We need the United States with us -- they are, after all, the biggest polluter in the world."

It is uncertain if the E.U. plan will be accepted by the member governments and, if so, whether the targets can be met. A number of European countries, including Italy and Spain, are already having trouble meeting the Kyoto requirements. Environmentalists would like to see even more ambitious goals to reduce emissions.

The plan emphasizes the development of renewable energy, such as biofuels, and new low-pollution technologies, as well as the reduction of emissions from existing energy sources. It does not call for increased reliance on nuclear energy, which emits no carbon dioxide, the most significant of the gases that trap heat in Earth's atmosphere.

Barroso said nuclear energy would be a matter for individual states to decide.

He also said Europe should "actively develop a common external energy policy and speak with one voice to third countries" -- a clear reference to Russia.

The union has been divided in its approach to Russia, with Poland, for instance, objecting to a pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will directly connect Russia to Germany.

Belarus, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy subsidies, has been smarting from increases in the prices it pays for Russian natural gas and the crude oil that it profitably reprocessed before selling it to Western Europe. It imposed the duties on Russian oil transshipments in response; Russia asserts Belarus was also siphoning off oil for its own use.

Belarusan Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky said he planned to fly to Moscow on Thursday for talks. "I hope that we will settle all mutual differences and claims relating to Russian oil deliveries in two days," Sidorsky told reporters in Minsk.

Russia had earlier insisted that lifting the oil duty, which it said was illegal, was a nonnegotiable precondition for any talks. It was unclear if Putin promised Belarus anything in return. The Kremlin issued a terse statement saying that Putin and Lukashenko had discussed "energy relations," among other issues.

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