Gazprom eyes jewels of Serbian energy sector

Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller met here Tuesday with top Serbian leaders in talks expected to put the Russian behemoth in pole position for key energy sector privatisations.

Miller held discussions with Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who said they sought commitments by the Russians for a gas pipeline to cut across the Balkan country.

The talks focused on “joint investments, and special attention was dedicated to the possibility that a part of the ‘South Stream’ pipeline could pass through Serbia,” said a statement issued by Tadic’s office.

Securing a role in South Stream — a project to transport Russian natural gas to Italy — “would provide a stable supply of power sources to the Serbian market and industry,” added the statement.

Belgrade wanted to finalise a memorandum of understanding that was signed with Gazprom in December for the gas conduit, said a statement from Kostunica’s office.

The billion-euro (1.3-billion-dollar) project was of “extreme importance” to the former Yugoslav republic, said the statement.

“Prime Minister Kostunica stressed that the energy field had a decisive role in the economic development of the country and that it is in the interests of Serbia to establish strategic cooperation with Gazprom.”

Work on the 400-kilometre (250-mile) pipeline, from its border with Bulgaria to the frontier with Croatia, was meant to begin in 2007.

Serbia expects income from the project in the form of transit fees, in addition to money earned from construction and maintenance of the pipeline.

The pipeline — designed to carry 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year — would ultimately be linked to the Bluestream pipeline, which is to run from Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea.

In the talks, Gazprom was keen to secure majority stakes in two of the biggest Serbian companies still up for privatisation, oil monopoly Naftne Industrije Srbije (NIS) and electricity counterpart Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS), according to the Serbian newspaper Blic.

Russian businesses have already snapped up a number of Serbian companies, among them the state’s biggest tourist agency Putnik and Termoelektro, a major industrial engineering company.

They are now being publicly lined up to pick off other jewels of the country’s national assets, such as NIS, EPS, copper miner RTB Bor and flagship carrier JAT Airways.

Analysts have put the increase down to Moscow’s steadfast support for Belgrade in opposition to Kosovo’s possible independence.

However, ahead of the talks, Serbian Energy Minister Aleksandar Popovic denied Russia’s interest in NIS was in any way linked to the issue of Kosovo, a breakaway Albanian-majority province of Serbia.

“I cannot prejudice the agenda, but considering that all important energy sector issues will be discussed, it’s realistic to expect that an intention of oil company Gazpromneft … to take part in the NIS privatisation tender,” Popovic was quoted as saying in the newspaper Danas.

Tuesday’s talks come in spite of the fact that Serbia’s government is yet to formally decide on its privatisation strategy for NIS, over which there are divided opinions within the ruling coalition, said Blic.

“The cynics might say, perhaps, that Gazprom’ is going to determine the dynamics of their work,” said the daily.

Source: AFP

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