Russia using gas to bully Moldova, says EU

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union's top diplomat said on Thursday that Moscow was using natural gas to bully Moldova, as the prime minister of the ex-Soviet republic said the country could not afford the prices Russia was now offering.

Moldova's gas contract with Russia's Gazprom expired at the end of September. Moldova's pro-EU Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita told Reuters that Gazprom was not offering the new government the traditional annual rollover of a previous, 30-year contract, but instead a three-fold price increase.

The Kremlin on Wednesday denied the Russian company was using gas talks to try to extract political concessions, but EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell rejected that argument.

"In global terms the price increases around the world are not a consequence of weaponisation of the gas supply, but in the case of Moldova, yes it is," Borrell told a news conference alongside Gavrilita in Brussels.

He did not offer any detailed evidence of Russian pressure. Gavrilita said in an interview with Reuters that Gazprom had increased its long-standing price for Moldova to $790 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas, from around $250.

"The price increase for Moldova is just extraordinarily stark. It has increased threefold and is set to increase fourfold if we buy everything on the spot market. The country cannot afford this politically, economically or socially," Gavrilita said.

Moldova is governed by the pro-Western government of President Maia Sandu who defeated Moscow-backed Igor Dodon in an election last November. The country was one of the Soviet Union's 15 republics and has been at the centre of a political tug of influence between Russia and the West since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gavrilita said Moldovan officials continued talks with Gazprom in St. Petersburg and that she took it as a good sign that they were continuing, but it was still unclear if there would be a deal.

She said the country was looking at swaps, contracts without prepayment conditions and long-term contracts from other sources. The country bought gas from EU countries for the first time this month.


Asked if Moldova could live without a long-term Gazprom contract, she said: "I want to underline here that no European country is buying its whole supply on the spot (market)."

Gazprom has said it will suspend gas exports to Moldova, which borders Romania and Ukraine, if it is not paid for previous supplies.

The EU this week said it would give Moldova 60 million euros ($70 million) by the end of the year to deal with the crisis, after Moldova declared a state of emergency.

Gavrilita, who said supplies had fallen so low that pressure in Moldovan pipelines went below a critical level, will use the money to help poor Moldovans unable to pay higher energy prices.

After less than 100 days in office, the Sandu government is looking to end years of endemic corruption and is "looking for a European style of development," Gavrilita said. "In the long term, yes, we do see Moldova as part of the EU," she said, adding that the country was not seeking to join NATO.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Jan Harvey and Susan Fenton)