Russia playing games with gas supplies to spread concern: Romania

By Luiza Ilie BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's energy minister said on Tuesday Russia was playing games with gas supplies to cause concerns in EU states, after analysts warned that Moscow could use the flows to retaliate against sanctions imposed over its role in Ukraine. Razvan Nicolescu said Russia's state-owned Gazprom had warned of an imminent 10 percent cut in gas to the country on Monday, only to say supplies would keep to their normal levels until at least Thursday a day later. "I expect such situations to happen again. It is a game attempting to cause concern in some EU states. It has happened in Poland, Slovakia, Austria," Nicolescu told an energy seminar. "I think those who play such games are going to lose a lot in the medium and long term by ... damage to their reputation." Nicolescu said Gazprom had given no reason for the initial planned cut. The company was not available to comment but said it was satisfying the needs of its "European partners," in a statement after its board meeting on Tuesday. With winter approaching, Russia's customers have been on particularly high alert for any sign Moscow could use its role as Europe's biggest gas supplier to strike back at economic penalties imposed by the EU and Washington over Ukraine. The United States, NATO and Ukraine's government have accused Russia of sending troops into eastern Ukraine to bolster pro-Moscow separatist rebels. Russia has dismissed the charge. Poland, Slovakia and Austria have reported slight declines in shipments in recent days from Russia. Poland's deputy prime minister said on Saturday recent temporary disruptions in supply "were in fact an attempt from the eastern supplier to test Poland’s reaction". Gazprom said it was not able to supply Poland with the volumes of natural gas it was requesting. But energy analysts in Warsaw have said Russia may be using deliveries to Poland to send Europe a tentative warning it will retaliate if Brussels goes through with new sanctions. Romania imports only about a fifth of its gas needs from Gazprom through intermediaries, and produces the rest in local fields managed by state-owned producer Romgaz and oil and gas group Petrom, controlled by Austria's OMV. Nicolescu said Romania would not be hurt should Russia cut off supplies even in the event of a harsh winter, as it has stored significant gas amounts underground. MARKET DEREGULATION Also on Tuesday, Nicolescu said the leftist government would draft a bill to postpone the deregulation of gas tariffs for households by at least two and a half years. Romania has committed to deregulating its gas and power markets for households and industry by 2018, a deadline Nicolescu called "one of the most ambitious of all EU states". Romania's proposed postponement would need approval from the European Commission, which requires all member states to align energy prices over a number of years. "We have social, economic and legal arguments," Nicolescu said, adding average wages have fallen by 1 percent over the last two years while gas tariffs have risen 16 percent. The postponement was hailed by some energy utilities, who would also like industrial consumers to receive a respite. "Consumption is declining, a huge number of customers are (shutting down) ... future price hikes are not affordable," said Frank Hajdinjak, head of the Romanian unit of Germany's E.ON. The energy minister also said Romanian state firms were interested in buying Enel Dobrogea, a local power distributor owned by Italy's Enel. Enel plans to sell its Romanian power distribution and sales assets this year. Nicolescu and the managers of state nuclear power producer Nuclearelectrica and power supplier Electrica will hold talks with Enel on Wednesday. (Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)