Putin in Belgrade to talk South Stream

23rd March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in Serbia Wednesday for talks aimed at ironing out details of the planned South Stream gas pipeline that would cut across the Balkans.

The pipeline project, championed by Putin since 2007, would pump gas from southern Russia to the Balkans and onwards to other European countries, bypassing Ukraine with which Russia has strained relations.

It is seen as a rival to the European Nabucco project, which will bypass Russia to try and reach suppliers around the Caspian Sea and in the Middle East to ease Europe's dependence on Russian gas.

Local press reported that Putin's visit aims to iron out the final details of the project in Serbia. Moscow hopes that the first gas can flow through the pipeline in 2015.

"We have much to talk about on all kinds of cooperation. We have a lot to discuss because the cooperation is increasing," Putin told Serbian president Boris Tadic in a short introductory remarks for the media before their tete-a-tete.

During the visit Serbia and Russia are due to sign three bilateral agreements on trade, tourism and road transport, the Serbian authorities said.

Tadic also recalled that Belgrade and Moscow are due to sign a strategic partnership accord in several months.

"That will be the crown on our relationship," the Serbian president told Putin.

Belgrade has already agreed to let the South Stream pipeline, to be built by Russian gas giant Gazprom and Italy's ENI, pass through its territory.

According to local media the building the 470 kilometer Serb portion of the planned 3,600 kilometers (2,237 miles) of the South Stream pipeline could cost up to 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion).

It will make Serbia an important regional energy force and also secure a steady gas supply. Serbia was one of the countries hit hard when Russia turned off gas supplies to Ukraine after a row in 2009.

On his two-day trip to the Balkans, which started in Slovenia Tuesday, Putin was being accompanied by Alexei Miller, head of Russian gas giant Gazprom.

In Slovenia a deal was signed to found a joint company that would draw the possible route of the pipeline through Slovenia and run its construction.

Besides energy questions Putin is also expected to discuss the airstrikes on Libya and the status of Kosovo. Moscow is a steadfast supporter of Belgrade's refusal to recognise the unilateral declaration of independence of its former province in 2008.

The visit is not all business, Putin will have time to relax in the evening when he is set to watch a friendly football match between Red Star Belgrade and his favourite Russian club Zenit St Petersburg. Both teams are sponsored by Gazprom.

© 2011 AFP

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