Putin to talk South Stream pipeline in Slovenia and Serbia
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will visit Slovenia and Serbia this week for talks focused on the ambitious South Stream gas pipeline planned on their territory, to rival Europe's Nabucco project.
Putin will meet with Slovenia's President Danilo Turk and Prime Minister Borut Pahor on Tuesday, then travel to the Serbian capital on Wednesday for talks with President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic.
Belgrade and Ljubljana have already agreed to let the pipeline, to be built by Russian gas giant Gazprom and Italy's ENI, pass through their territory.
Slovenia signed a deal with Russia in November 2009 and Serbia agreed as part of a major energy agreement signed in December 2008, which also sealed the take-over of the NIS Serbian petrol company by Gazprom.
With a planned length of 3,600 kilometers (2,237 miles), the South Stream pipeline-- running from the Black Sea via the Balkans to western Europe -- should provide countries like Greece and Italy directly with Russian gas.
The new pipeline will bypass Ukraine, which has been at the centre of several energy rows with Russia in the last few years that led to cuts of Russian gas supplies to Europe.
The project also provides direct competition to the European-backed Nabucco pipeline, due to be finished in 2013, which aims to bring gas from the Caspian Sea and Middle East countries into Europe to ease Europe's dependence on Russian gas.
Putin's talks this week are expected to focus on clearing up the last financial and legal hurdles for the South Stream project.
In Belgrade the visit is also seen as an affirmation of Russian-Serbian ties, after the visit of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to Belgrade in October 2009.
Russia's ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Konuzin told the NIN magazine that Putin will also discuss the possibility, now that Gazprom has taken over NIS, of expanding the company's facilities for underground gas storage as outlined in the December 2008 energy deal.
Serbia wants such storage to ward off problems if Russia again cuts gas supplies running through Ukraine. Russian cuts in gas supplies in early 2009 hit Serbia and other Balkans countries hard.
Putin and Tadic are also expected to finalise the terms for a planned 800-million-dollar (565-million-euro) Russian loan to be used mainly for railway infrastructure.
In 2010 the total amount of trade between Russia and Serbia was 2.74 billion dollars - Serbia exported 540 million dollars worth and imported 2.2 billion dollars from Russia, according to official figures.
Serbia sees Moscow not only as a key economic partner but also an important political ally. While Serbia has applied for European Union candidacy status it remains close to Russia.
Moscow has unfailingly backed Belgrade on its position on Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Serbia has rejected the move and continues to regard it as a southern province despite the fact that 75 countries including the United States and a majority of EU members have recognised Kosovo.
© 2011 AFP