Putin Urges Black Sea Cooperation

ReutersPutin looking out at the Bosporus from the waterfront of Istanbul's Ciriagan Palace during a break in Monday's talks.
ISTANBUL -- President Vladimir Putin urged Black Sea nations on Monday to turn their loose grouping into an effective tool of economic cooperation in a region fast becoming an international energy hub.

But his foreign minister made clear that Russia opposed the idea of using the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, which marked its 15th anniversary on Monday, to broker solutions to the region's bitter political disputes.

"We are ready to accomplish major tasks with our regional partners that affect not only the economic climate in the region but also the European and world economy," Putin told a BSEC summit in Istanbul.

Many of the 12 BSEC members are former Soviet republics or former Cold War allies of Russia, which is now seeking a bigger international role on the back of its strong oil- and gas-fueled economic growth.

Last month, Putin told a conference in St. Petersburg that flexible regional groups could challenge the domination of established Western-led international bodies, which he said had failed to take fully into account the interests of emerging nations.

In Istanbul, he said the BSEC, whose member states host major pipelines linking the Central Asian and Caucasus regions to Europe, could become such a grouping. "Energy supplies are becoming an increasingly important factor in progress," Putin told fellow leaders at the sumptuous Ciragan Palace.

"We propose to enhance the stability of local energy markets, among other things, through long-term contacts. ... Diversification of energy delivery routes is also on the agenda."

Apart from its Blue Stream project, which delivers Russian gas to Europe via Turkey, Gazprom last week signed a deal with Italy's Eni to build a pipeline under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and on to Europe. Analysts say the pipeline expansion plans are part of Moscow's strategy to head off the creation of rival routes that would bypass Russia.

European countries are keen to lessen their heavy dependence on Russia for their oil and natural gas.

"All projects, small and big, should be economically viable, otherwise they will be just idle talk bringing disappointment," Putin said, in an apparent reference to the rival projects.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters of other projects backed by Russia that the BSEC could undertake, including a ring road around the Black Sea coast, a joint energy network and the revival of ferry traffic between major ports.

But Lavrov signaled Russia's reluctance to allow the grouping to tackle the region's political conflicts. "Any attempts to politicize its work are counterproductive. The conflicts should be solved in formats that have been approved by the United Nations," he said.

The leaders of Serbia and Albania -- both members of the BSEC though they are not on the Black Sea -- sparred at Monday's meeting over Kosovo.