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Germans Question $1Bln for Gazprom

The government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder approved a $1 billion loan guarantee to Gazprom, German officials said over the weekend, adding fuel to critics' claims that Schröder improperly benefited from a joint Russian-German pipeline project.

The German Finance Ministry on Saturday confirmed media reports that Schröder's government had approved a 900 million euro ($1.09 billion) loan guarantee to Gazprom for the North European Gas Pipeline project on Oct. 24, 2005, four weeks before Schröder left office and six weeks before he accepted a key post in the pipeline consortium.

Schröder said Saturday that he had only learned about the loan guarantee from media reports, and rejected renewed criticism by opposition German politicians as politically motivated, the newspaper Deutsche Welle reported on its web site Saturday.

The web site also published excerpts from an interview due to appear in the newspaper Handelsblatt on Monday in which Schröder said he initially declined an offer to head the pipeline consortium's shareholders committee in November, but reconsidered in December after a personal request by President Vladimir Putin.

"On Dec. 9, I then accepted the offer. I do not see that I did anything wrong," Schröder said.

While visiting Moscow on Thursday to officially assume the post, Schröder insisted that any German government would have supported the $5 billion pipeline project and denied that he had had any insider information while in public office. The post comes with a 250,000 euro ($301,000) annual salary.

"This affair stinks terribly," German Free Democratic Party chairman Guido Westerwelle said Saturday, Deutsche Welle reported.

"If Schröder has any respect for himself, he must immediately resign his post on the supervisory board of the gas consortium," Green Party leader Reinhard Butikofer said, the newspaper reported.

Other German officials said the parliament's budgetary committee would review the loan guarantee this week, Reuters reported. One official said, however, that immediate action was unlikely and that it was unclear whether the committee had the power to block the deal.

Several hours after German media first reported the loan guarantee on Friday, Gazprom released a brief statement saying it had rejected the proposed German loan and would finance construction of the first, above-ground section of the pipeline on its own.

"Gazprom wants to send a signal to avoid any negative political fallout," Steven Dashevsky, head of research at Aton brokerage, said by telephone Sunday. "They tried to pre-empt any potential negative decision by saying they didn't need the German money, which really they don't."

With estimated cash flow generation of $20 billion to $25 billion this year and the ability to easily raise foreign capital, "Gazprom is more than able to pay for its share of construction of the pipeline," Dashevsky said.

The pipeline -- which is to carry up to 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year under the Baltic Sea from Vyborg to Greifswald, Germany -- is a cornerstone of Gazprom's plan to expand its stake in Western European energy markets and diversify its export routes. Russia currently supplies 25 percent of Europe's natural gas needs though pipelines in Ukraine and Belarus, both of which have sought to leverage their role as transit states in recent price disputes with Gazprom.

Natural gas is expected to be the European Union's fastest-growing fuel source in coming decades. Brussels projects that the EU's dependence on imported gas will rise from more than 40 percent currently to about 70 percent by 2020.

"It's a fact of life for Europe that the only place they're going to get a substantial amount of energy in the future is Russia," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. "Europe already accepts that it is going to have to become more dependent on Russia's energy imports. It has no choice."

Schröder enthusiastically advocated the pipeline project during his chancellorship and signed off on the deal with Putin several weeks before leaving office. He is considered a close friend of Putin, as is Matthias Warnig, an official at Dresdner Bank who was named managing director of the pipeline's shareholders committee.

Dresdner Bank bought one-third of Gazprombank in December for $800 million, and also advised Gazprom on its $13 billion acquisition of Sibneft last year.

Gazprom controls 51 percent of the pipeline consortium, while German partners E.On and BASF each have a 24.5 percent stake. The pipeline is expected to begin shipping gas in 2010.

Armenia began paying about twice its previous price for Russian natural gas on Saturday, while talks continued between Gazprom and Armenian officials on ways to ease the blow for the country, The Associated Press reported.

Gazprom initially demanded that Armenia pay $110 per 1,000 cubic meters as of Jan. 1, but the company later agreed to hold off on the increase until April 1.

"You don't need to be an economist to figure out how much the chain reaction will affect the [pocketbooks] of citizens," said Ashot Aramyan, editor of Basis, an Armenian economic magazine.

Gazprom has extended a temporary deal to supply gas to Moldova until the end of June, the AP reported Friday.

Under the terms of the deal, Moldova will pay $110 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas, the same as in the first three months of the year, Moldovan Economy Minister Valeriu Lazar said. Moldova paid $80 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2005.

In January, Gazprom cut off gas to Moldova after it rejected an initial demand of $160 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. Moldova accused Russia of using its gas monopoly to punish former Soviet countries such as itself, Georgia and Ukraine, which have moved to establish closer ties to the West.

(The Moscow Times 03.iv.06)

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