By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Gazprom on Tuesday accused the European Commission of pressuring the Russian firm into slashing gas prices for its customers soon after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that could hinder the EU probe.
The European Commission last week launched a probe to find out whether Gazprom blocked competition in gas markets in Central and Eastern Europe. State-owned Gazprom has been under pressure for its pricing for some time. Some of its clients negotiated discounts while others threatened with lawsuits.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov lashed out at the probe on Tuesday, telling reporters that the investigation is meant to pressure the Russian company into lowering its prices.
"The European Commissions' actions can be viewed as pressure aimed to influence gas prices," he said.
He also complained about the Commission's lack of cooperation.
"In the past year, the Commission has not taken any action to establish a dialogue which Gazprom and the Russian government have repeatedly offered," he said.
Kupriyanov also announced that these developments are prompting Gazprom to revise its long-term strategy and start looking east. He also said the company's board could soon pass a decision to speed up the development of gas fields in Russia's east which would increase the potential resource base for Asian exports.
Russia highlighted its interests in Asian energy markets at last weekend's APEC forum in Vladivostok.
Valery Nesterov, oil and gas analyst at Moscow-based investment bank Troika Dialog, said that Kupriyanov's announcement of a shift to Asia is just part of a "chess game" between Russia and Europe.
Nesterov said that Gazprom has encountered problems at east-located and hard-to-tap gas fields and that their speedy development is also unlikely.
"This will be destroying the value of Gazprom, cutting its share price — investors don't like these plans," he said.
Just before Kupriyanov lambasted the EU, Putin signed a decree which could hinder Gazprom's cooperation with foreign regulators.
The decree bars strategic Russian enterprises, including Gazprom from disclosing information to foreign regulators, changing contracts and selling property abroad without government permission. It specifies that these companies will need permission to change the pricing of their foreign contracts.
Kupriyanov confirmed that it would not give discounts to its customers without government permission.
Yulia Tsyplyaeva, chief economist at PNB Paribas in Moscow, said the fact the decree was rushed through by Putin instead of being voted by parliament shows that the government considers the matter "very urgent."
Tsyplyaeva said that the decree makes the government "the main filter and decision maker on companies' disputes abroad."
"Transparency of the Russian business and its decision making process will be significantly affected, which is very bad news," she said.
Nesterov of Troika Dialog, however, does not see Gazprom's dispute with the European Commission boiling into a full-fledged gas war.
"Relations between Gazprom and European consumers and politicians have been tense for years," he said. "Europeans are as dependent on Russian gas as Russia is on gas exports to Europe, so a fierce conflict is counter-productive and would be fraught with economic damage to both parties."
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