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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Offers to Help Balkans on Energy

ZAGREB, Croatia -- President Vladimir Putin on Sunday pledged to help the Balkan region meet its energy needs and assume a greater role in the safe supply of oil and gas to mainstream Europe.

Speaking at a one-day energy conference of southeast European leaders, Putin said Russia was prepared to help develop local infrastructure and boost cooperation over the oil and gas that passes through the region's nations en route to the European Union.

"Russia is a world-leading factor in energy supply," Putin told a news conference, adding that Moscow was committed to international agreements in the energy field, including "investment, cooperation and interaction with the Balkans."

Putin listed projects or studies under way linking energy sources from the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to the EU through Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary, as well as a Black Sea pipeline deal announced Saturday between Italy's Eni and Gazprom.

"Russia is committed to participation in joint energy projects and meeting the highest environmental standards," Putin said, adding that Moscow "is open to dialogue, but also ready to protect its national interests."

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said that countries in the region were "an important hub of energy routes and have all the potential to develop into an even more important hub in the future."

"We can only achieve this through mutual cooperation in the region," he added.

The EU imports more than 40 percent of its natural gas, and almost half of this comes from Russia. Some central and eastern European countries depend almost entirely on Russian gas.

Leaders from Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Romania and Montenegro also took part in the talks, on issues ranging from the diversification of energy sources and its secure transport to market deregulation, environmental concerns and privatization.

Several countries in the region are collaborating on energy projects designed to diversify gas sources and reduce their dependence on Russia. Earlier this year, Croatia and Hungary agreed to strengthen cooperation in developing a liquefied petroleum gas terminal on the Croatian coast.

The terminal is scheduled to begin distributing gas from mostly North Africa and the Middle East to central Europe as of 2012.

Signaling Russia's efforts to reassert its presence in the Balkans, Putin expressed interest in expanding capital investments, power networks and pipelines. He also supported the idea of an "energy ring" in the Black Sea region, which he said could help outline the parameters of a common power grid in Europe.

Putin was also expected to touch on Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo and other international issues during bilateral talks on the sidelines.