President Putin Aims for Greater Russian Energy Role in Balkans

Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to strengthen ties with southeast European nations, said his country wants to supply natural gas through new pipelines, upgrade regional energy infrastructure and connect power grids, reported Bloomberg.

Russian gas-export monopoly OAO Gazprom and turbine-maker OAO Power Machines want to boost spending in the region, Putin said yesterday at a Balkan energy summit in Zagreb, Croatia. Gazprom may ask southeast Europe to join its planned pipeline connecting Russia to western Europe across the Black Sea, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Alexander Medvedev also said then.

``Russia has immense resources and cash and wants to strengthen its influence in the Balkans, so it will become a tough competitor'' to the European Union, said Petr Novak, an energy analyst at Atlantik Financial Markets in Prague. ``The Balkans is a region of economic growth so I'm not surprised Russia wants to increase its foothold there.''

Russia, in its ninth straight year of economic growth, is reasserting its influence in southeast Europe at the same time Putin tries to tighten his grip on the energy industry at home after Gazprom last week took control of BP Plc's stake in a Siberian deposit. Putin travels to Istanbul today to attend the Black Sea Economic Cooperation summit.

The Zagreb visit was ``aimed at making an economic point to play a larger role in the Balkans,'' Nebojsa Spaic, a political analyst at Farmer & Spaic Group in Belgrade, Serbia, said in a phone interview today.

Putin met with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov yesterday to discuss Bulgaria's role in the planned Gazprom-Eni SpA pipeline project that would link Russia to Austria and Italy. Serbian President Boris Tadic said it was ``in both Serbia and Croatia's interest'' to build the pipeline through the two countries to Italy.

``This is a very promising project that will secure the energy supply of Europe as a whole,'' Putin said. ``We're very happy that not only the Italian government supports this project but the European Commission.''

Putin, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who hosted the summit, and other regional leaders called for building free energy markets that would help develop the nation's economies.

Energy interests should not be ``realized by force and the accessibility of energy sources will not be used as a means of political pressure,'' Mesic said during the conference.

With the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union this year, the region's economies are expanding and need more energy. Energy infrastructure in the Balkans is aging and regional governments are seeking investment, analysts said.

The Balkans last year consumed 73 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, nearly half the annual volumes Gazprom sells to Europe as a whole, Putin said.

A key to Russian-Balkan cooperation is synchronizing the power grids of southern, central and western Europe with the former Soviet electricity system, Putin said.

``The realization of this project will create a Black Sea energy ring that will unite all European countries in the region,'' he said.

Russia also wants to participate in state asset sales and modernization of power plants and electricity grids in the Balkans. Russian companies are planning to bid for assets in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Putin said.

OAO Atomstroyexport, Russia's nuclear-technology exporter, won a tender last year to build a new atomic power plant in Bulgaria. A final agreement may be reached by the end of the year, Putin said. OAO Lukoil, Russia's largest privately owned oil company, has invested $1.5 billion in projects in Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Macedonia, he said.

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