East Europe Wants Less Gas Reliance on Russia

KRAKOW, Poland — Prime ministers of three East European states lent initial support on Friday to a Polish proposal to make themselves less dependent on natural gas from Russia by joint purchases of energy from Norway.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek asked his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia to consider buying gas that Poland wants to pump from Norway to the region through a new $1.5 billion pipeline.

"We are inclined to take part in this project, although experts need to carefully study its feasibility," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a news conference after the four leaders met in Krakow, Poland's historic capital.

"We have to act cautiously, as energy supplies from the East are still cheaper. But it is in the interest of Hungary to have access to other sources of energy to become more independent," he added.

A Polish government source said the Czech Republic and Slovakia were also interested, although he gave no firm pledges. Poland needs to import about 5 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Norway to make the pipeline pay, but will have to find other countries to buy part of the delivery to make the overall project economically viable.

The four countries depend on gas supplies from Russian energy giant Gazprom and some regional politicians are concerned that deliveries could be disrupted if Russia plunges into a political or economic crisis.

The four prime ministers in the so-called Visegrad group, also reiterated calls for the European Union to speed up enlargement talks to meet its commitment to recruit the first new members from 12, mostly former communist, applicant countries by 2004.

They said they expected the EU's June summit in the Swedish city of Gothenburg to reaffirm the bloc's readiness to complete accession talks with the best-prepared countries in 2002. They urged the European Commission, the EU's executive body, to swiftly present its negotiation positions in several key areas, such as agriculture.

They declined to comment on a recent EU proposal to allow new members to ban land sales to foreigners for seven years after their accession.

The issue could complicate enlargement talks as some diplomats say the Czech Republic and Hungary could accept the plan, while Poland, by far the largest country negotiating EU membership, is expected to oppose it. Poland has requested an 18-year ban on free land sales to foreigners and an insistence on the matter could hold back EU accession for other countries, unless the bloc decides to exclude Poland from the first wave of enlargement.

The prime ministers also called on NATO to admit more former Soviet bloc states at the military pact's summit in Prague next year. Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltic republics, despite strong objections from Russia, are seeking entry.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were the first countries of the former Warsaw pact to join NATO in 1999.