KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarus started importing oil from Norway on Tuesday after Russia, its main oil provider, suspended supplies earlier this month amid stalled talks on further strengthening economic ties between two countries.
Belarusian state-run oil company Belneftekhim said its subsidiary bought 80,000 tones of crude oil from Norway, which is expected to be delivered to the country's refineries via rail in the next few days.
Importing oil from alternative sources is more expensive for Belarus than cheap Russian supplies. But Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sees it as an important message for the Kremlin, Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst from the Minsk-based Strategia think tank, told The Associated Press.
“Lukashenko is sending a clear signal to the Kremlin that he is ready to tighten his belt, but isn't ready to become a Russian governor,” Karbalevich said.
Russia stopped supplying oil to its post-Soviet neighbor after Dec. 31. The two nations had failed to renegotiate an agreed oil price for this year during drawn-out negotiations on deepening the integration of their economies.
The Russian suspension did not affect oil crossing Belarus to Europe or the supply of natural gas but had consequences for Belarus, which relies on Russia for more than 80% of its overall energy needs.
Russia resumed limited supplies to Belarus on Jan. 4, but Lukashenko vowed to look for alternative oil suppliers.
On Tuesday, Lukashenko acknowledged “currently there is no alternative for all oil supplies from Russia.” He said Belarus needs to diversify and should work to import no more than 40% of the oil it needs from Russia.
“Another 30% we should import from the Baltics, and the remaining 30% through Ukraine," Lukasheko said at a government meeting.
The Kremlin has recently increased the pressure on Belarus, raising energy prices and cutting subsidies. It argues that Belarus should accept greater economic integration if it wants to continue receiving energy resources at Russia's domestic prices.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held two rounds of talks with Lukachenko in December but they failed to agree on the closer ties and oil and gas prices.
Putin said Russia was not ready to “subsidize” energy supplies without more economic integration with Belarus. Lukashenko insisted he would not sign off on the integration until the issues with oil and gas supplies were resolved.
The talks prompted fears in Belarus that the Kremlin is plotting to form a single state with Belarus to keep Putin in power well past the end of his term in 2024. Lukashenko has repeatedly rejected the idea, saying that Belarus would never become part of Russia.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova contributed from Moscow.