Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Serbia is ready to move forward with the South Stream gas pipeline, President Tomislav Nikolic insisted on May 6, despite pressure from the EU for the candidate country to join its sanctions against Russia.
Belgrade remains keen on South Stream, which is planned to carry 63bn cubic metres of Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then on to Southeast and Central Europe, the president told Russian State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin. That flies in the face of efforts by Brussels to either delay or block the project - a stance that has only hardened during the crisis in Ukraine.
On the one hand, South Stream will take Russian gas exports away from Ukraine's transit system, draining the country of vital revenue. On the other, Brussels is concerned that it will only deepen European dependence on Russian energy - an issue that is in full focus due to the ongoing struggle to present a unified front to Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.
“President Nikolic has expressed interest in intensifying the work on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, stressing that this is a project that will provide long-term energy security of our country and create the conditions for significant improvement of the Serbian economy,” says a statement published on the Serbian presidential website. Nikolic and Naryshkin “expressed satisfaction with the level of cooperation between Serbia and Russia, particularly with respect to joint economic projects.”
At a separate meeting on the sidelines of the Council of Europe’s Ministers Committee in Vienna, the Russian and Serbian foreign ministers also confirmed their readiness to build the pipeline. “The talks confirmed the mutual desire to strengthen bilateral ties and press on with large-scale bilateral projects in the trade, economic and investment spheres, including the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline,” said a statement from the Russian foreign ministry.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic also told his Russian counterpart that Serbia remains a “loyal friend” of Russia. “We noted with satisfaction the similar or identical approaches based on respect for international law that Moscow and Belgrade share on the issues of the European and international agenda. Particular attention was paid to the situation in the Balkans and Ukraine,” the Russian foreign ministry statement says.
Serbia is keen to move forward with entry to the European Union, and is aiming to join by 2019. However, Belgrade has also sought to maintain its close relationship with Russia. On May 5, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule that Belgrade will not join EU sanctions against Russia. "I asked... for Serbia to maintain its own attitude, that somewhat differs from that of other countries, which is not to impose sanctions to Russia," Vucic told reporters.
There are also growing divisions within the EU over the future of the 2,380km South Stream pipeline. The EU says host countries must renegotiate contracts with Russian gas giant Gazprom to reflect the bloc's legislation on liberalization of the energy market. Last week, Bulgaria passed a bill seeking to evade that demand. Gazprom is expected to make a final decision on the route of the pipeline later this year.
In a vote on April 17, a majority in the European Parliament voted in favour of ending the project, as well as backing EU economic sanctions against Russia over its role in the crisis in Ukraine. MEPs voted separately on a text which includes a statement that the parliament "takes the view that the South Stream pipeline should not be built, and that other sources of supply should be made available."
Serbia and Bulgaria reacted with dismay. Bulgarian Energy Minister Dragomir Stoynev said immediately after the vote that Sofia would “fight for the implementation of South Stream” which Sofia deems of strategic importance to the country.
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