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Putin Vows to Fix Transit Problems

President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that he would seek to speed up the construction of pipelines delivering oil and gas directly to European customers in a bid to ease concerns over the country's ability to act as a dependable energy supplier.

"We will in the most active way possible develop our transport network in order to have the opportunity to deliver our resources to our main consumers directly," Putin said after two hours of talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin's comments reinforced the Kremlin line that Russia's former Soviet neighbors Ukraine and Belarus were to blame for pipeline cutoffs that caused oil and gas shipments to Europe to dip twice in the past 12 months.

Merkel, in her first visit to Russia since taking over the presidencies of the European Union and Group of Eight on Jan. 1, criticized Putin for failing to inform EU leaders that their energy supplies would be affected by spats with neighboring transit countries.

"Communication on certain issues must be better to avoid irritations," Merkel said at a joint news conference after talks at Putin's Bocharov Ruchei residence.

Germany faced a drop in oil supplies earlier this month when a key pipeline was shut during a conflict with Belarus over oil tariffs, and its gas supply dipped last year during Gazprom's pricing dispute with Ukraine.

"We are open to constructive work in the framework of the energy dialogue with the European Union," Putin said. "There should be no doubts that Russia has been and will remain a reliable fuel supplier."

Yet European concerns remain high. Poland has used its veto to block the start of negotiations on a new EU-Russia cooperation treaty in part to register its concerns over Russia's role as a dependable supplier of oil and gas.

All 27 EU members must agree to start the talks, and Poland has refused to lift its veto until Moscow removes a yearlong ban on a range of Polish agricultural products. It has also voiced concerns over Russia's refusal to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty and its accompanying Transit Protocol, which would open the country's pipelines to third-party competition.

EU leaders had hoped to reach an agreement with Poland and Russia before Merkel's visit. Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev failed to clinch a deal during talks in Berlin on Saturday with his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Lepper, and European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

A team of Russian and EU experts are scheduled to carry out a joint inspection of Polish meat producing facilities in the next two weeks, Lepper said, The Associated Press reported.

Lepper said a series of talks was planned for the next month, indicating that the start of talks on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement could drag on well into 2007.

Putin's comments on the issue remained opaque. "Let's agree -- we aren't against agreeing," he told reporters, adding that Russian officials should hold direct talks with Polish meat producers.

Merkel will tread a fine line in her presidency in attempting to engage Russia while supporting the cause of new member states like Poland, analysts said. Poland, the largest of 10 mainly former communist countries that joined the EU in 2004, has historically been mistrustful of Russia. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on Jan. 1.

Warsaw has loudly objected to Germany's plans to build a gas pipeline with Russia under the Baltic Sea, which will exclude Poland and Ukraine as transit countries. Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has compared the agreement to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the secret deal between the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers that divided up Poland.

"Merkel's challenge is to prove to the other EU members, particularly the new ones, that Germany will make sure their needs are taken care of," said Angela Stent, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.

"She doesn't want to focus too much on the separate Germany-Russia relationship, reviving the nightmare of the East Europeans that all deals will be made to their disadvantage," she said.

Even if Russia follows through on Putin's promise to speed up work on oil pipelines to the Pacific and export routes to the West, there are few signs that domestic energy production will be high enough to fill them, Stent said.

Clifford Kupchan, director for Europe and Eurasia at Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy, said Putin's comments were unlikely to allay European fears.

"In any strategic, meaningful way, emphasis on cutting out transit states is not going to assure Merkel or other European leaders," Kupchan said.

"Progress on the Energy Charter, progress on forging rules of the game that the Russians will follow is the only way there is going to be a long-term easing of tensions," he said.

The two leaders did not indicate when they thought talks on the new EU-Russia agreement would begin. The southern city of Samara is set to host the next EU-Russia summit on May 18, while Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi meets with Putin in Sochi on Tuesday.

Putin and Merkel told reporters they would work together within the so-called Middle East Quartet to revive the stalled Middle East peace process. Representatives of the Quartet -- the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations -- are scheduled to meet in Washington this month.

Putin told reporters that proposals on resolving Kosovo's status must be acceptable to Serbia, where national elections were taking place Sunday.

"Russia thinks it is unacceptable to impose from outside a decision on the status of Kosovo. A long-term solution of the problem can be achieved only if it suits both Belgrade and Pristina," Putin said.

Merkel, meanwhile, lent her support to pro-Western reformers in the election, saying: "I hope that the democratic forces in Serbia are strengthened by the election."


(The Moscow Times 22.i.07)

 
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