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Gas Price Talks Between Russia and Belarus Down to the Wire

A top negotiator from Belarus is in Moscow for a last-minute effort to resolve a dispute over natural gas prices that has strained relations between the two former Soviet republics. And, there are differing interpretations of what has been agreed, as Bill Gasperini reports for VOA from Moscow.

Belorussia's deputy prime minister arrived in Moscow just hours before Russia's deadline for agreement to be reached on a new pricing structure. Moscow has threatened to cut off the flow of gas to its neighbor if the deadline passes without agreement.

Russia's state gas company, Gazprom, wants to increase the price from 47- to 105-dollars per thousand cubic meters, a sum that is still less than half of what western European nations pay.

But Belorussian leaders say they have a special relationship with Russia, and that their consumers should not pay more than those in Russia do.

Belarus has said, if Russia does cut the gas on New Year's Day, it will halt the transport of gas to western Europe that transits through pipelines across its territory.

Last year, a similar situation led Russia to cut off the gas to neighboring Ukraine, which created supply shortfalls in western Europe and shook confidence in Russia's reliability as an energy supplier.

Late on Saturday, Belarus said a deal had been reached, but Gazprom later denied that, and, early Sunday the gas giant's spokesman, Sergei Kypryanov, said nothing has changed.

He says that, so far, there is no contract on the supply of gas for next year, even though Gazprom has offered Belarus what he calls the "best possible deal that exists anywhere in the region."

Observers say Belarus is worried because its largely Soviet-style economy is highly dependent on cheap energy.

The country is led by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been called "Europe's last dictator" by some Western leaders.

European officials have called on both Russia and Belarus to resolve the dispute before the deadline.