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Kudrin Hints at Energy Reforms

Russia took a hesitant step toward liberalizing its energy market at the Group of Eight finance ministers' meeting in Moscow over the weekend, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin saying Saturday that Gazprom would eventually lose its exclusive use of gas pipelines.

In an apparent response to European pressure, Kudrin said that independent gas producers, including foreign companies, would have access to the state-controlled export pipelines.

"In the future, access to export pipelines will be equal for all [companies] that win tenders to develop new gas fields. I am not prepared to say when that will happen, but we are readying ourselves for it," Kudrin told reporters.

While energy dominated the talk at the finance ministers' official meeting and at their working lunch with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, most of the action came on the side issues of aid to poor nations and efforts to prevent worldwide epidemics as Russia led the first event of its G8 presidency.

At a meeting with Putin on Saturday, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow offered support for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, saying that talks were "in the home stretch." Putin predicted that Russia would become one of the United States' main energy suppliers over the next few years.

"Our trade and economic links have grown at a very quick tempo -- more than 40 percent per year. This involves nearly all sectors, including energy," Putin told Snow, according to a version of his comments posted on the Kremlin web site.

"I believe that in the next three to four years we will be more than able to reach a level at which Russian power suppliers will occupy third or fourth place on the U.S. market," Putin said.

Though intellectual property rights and Russia's refusal to allow foreign banks to set up local branches remain sticking points, Snow said Russia and the United States had deepened their understanding.

"We very much want to conclude these negotiations and see the Russian accession to the WTO completed soon," Snow told reporters on Saturday. "I think we're in the home stretch."

French Finance Minister Thierry Breton pressed Russia to ratify the 1991 Energy Charter, which would help secure energy supplies to Europe.

Kudrin refused to specify when Russia might ratify the treaty. "We cannot set a date at the moment," he said.

Under the treaty, supplier countries cannot cut energy deliveries to consumers during price disputes -- a provision that would provide protection against the kind of supply shortages Europe faced during last month's bitter dispute with Ukraine over gas prices.

Europe's supplies have suffered considerable disturbances, first at the beginning of the year when Russia cut its supplies to Ukraine, then during a prolonged cold spell that strained Gazprom's export capability.

Underlining European fears over continuity of supplies, Italian oil and gas giant Eni reported a 16.2 percent drop in Russian gas supplies for a 24-hour period on Saturday, The Associated Press reported.

"I will use all my power to move Russia toward" ratification of the Energy Charter, France's Breton told reporters Saturday. "Based on what happened with Ukraine, we can say that the dialogue between Russian and Europe could be going better."

A separate French proposal, backed by the British and the Italians, offered Moscow international funding for new gas pipelines in return for allowing independent Russian producers access to European markets. Currently, Gazprom supplies one-quarter of Europe's gas, although last year independent Russian producers accounted for almost 15 percent of the country's output of 630 billion cubic meters. Independent producers are not currently allowed access to pipelines to Europe or to produce more than a state-allotted quota.

Meanwhile, more progress was made by ministers on debt relief to the world's poorest nations and united action to combat epidemics and terrorism.

Russia confirmed on Saturday that it would write off $688 million in debt owed to it by 16 African countries, and pushed for guarantees that the $12 billion early debt repayment it plans to make to the Paris Club of creditor nations later this year would be diverted to poor countries in Africa.

The ministers' final communique, however, made no such guarantees.

"We welcome that Russia's improved fiscal position will allow it to seek further prepayment of its eligible debt," the communique said, but it made no recommendation on how the repaid debt should be used.

German Finance Minister Peer SteinbrЯck opposed early repayment to Germany, saying that his country had already issued bonds on the Russian debt. In reply, Putin said the planned $12 billion repayment would not involve Russia's debt to Germany.

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, who also met with the ministers in Moscow, said that a separate initiative to cancel Third World debt had gained further momentum at the meeting and should be implemented by July 1.

The World Bank's Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative promises to cancel the debts of 42 counties across Africa and around the world.

At Saturday's working lunch with the finance ministers, Putin also pledged $43.5 million over the next four years to the IMF's Exogenous Shocks Facility, a fund meant to provide emergency aid to poor countries during natural disasters or economic crises.

One especially timely result of the Moscow meeting was the agreement to approve a World Bank program to tackle the global spread of infectious diseases. As media reported Saturday about an outbreak of avian flu in southern Italy, the ministers backed an Italian proposal to offer incentives for private firms to stockpile vaccines in the event of a global epidemic.

Ministers also agreed on measures against money laundering aimed at combatting the financing of terrorism.


(The Moscow Times 13.ii.06)

 
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