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The Wall Street Journal: THE MORNING BRIEF: By JOSEPH SCHUMAN

Threats Widen in Gazprom-Belarus Dispute

Gazprom’s dispute with the Belarusian government over the cost of gas — this year’s edition of what seems like an annual winter pricing fight between the state-owned Russian monopoly and a formerly Soviet client state — now threatens the supply to Western Europe. Gazprom said yesterday that Germany, Poland and Lithuania could face supply disruptions, because if Gazprom cuts off Belarus, Belarus will halt all natural-gas flows through its pipeline, which provides 20% of Europe’s gas. “If I don’t have a domestic gas supply contract, Gazprom won’t have a transit deal,” Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said, as quoted by the Financial Times. Gazprom has said it will turn off the taps for Belarus starting Jan. 1 if no deal is signed.

In a dispute very similar to the one that threatened the gas flow through Ukraine’s pipelines last year, Gazprom wants to raise the price charged to Belarus to $105 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas from $47 — though this would still be below global market prices. Gazprom wants $75 in cash and the rest in shares in the Belarusian pipeline network, which would essentially give it a 50% stake, as the Times of London notes. Meanwhile, the European Commission says it thinks EU reserves will be able to handle any shortfall, a sentiment in line with Germany’s expression of understanding for Moscow’s position. But the Times notes Poland, which has pushed its EU partners to take a harder line on gas negotiations with Russia, said the “problem poses a threat to us.”

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Moscow Sees Possible Yukos-Litvinenko Link
On a separate Russian front, authorities in Moscow yesterday essentially said they suspected one Kremlin enemy of responsibility in the death of another. The office of the prosecutor-general said it is “checking the version” of an account that a former manager at deconstructed petroleum giant Yukos is linked to the death of the exiled ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London, as the BBC reports. The ex-Yukos manager in question is Leonid Nevzlin, who was close to tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now in jail following a prosecution that Kremlin critics blame on Mr. Khodorkovsky’s political opposition to President Vladimir Putin. The prosecutor’s statement didn’t elaborate on any evidence making the Litvinenko-Nevzlin link, the New York Times reports. And a spokesman for Mr. Nevzlin, who is already wanted in Russia on charges related to Yukos and now lives in Israel, dismissed the accusation.

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Also of Note…

Los Angeles Times: Sales of new homes bounced back in November and have posted increases in three of the last four months, a sign that this year’s drop in housing may be leveling off.

Bloomberg: Royal Dutch Shell said Gale Norton will join the world’s second-largest publicly traded oil company as a general counsel, 10 months after she resigned as President Bush’s interior secretary amid increased congressional criticism for how the Interior Department handled a dispute with producers such as Shell and BP over oil and gas royalties.

The above are extracts from THE MORNING BRIEF

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