Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he expects Russia's recession-hit economy to start growing again at the end of the year, while he hopes for improving economic ties with friendly countries in southeastern Europe.
"I think that the economy will return to the path of growth in late 2015, early 2016. It won't be anything spectacular, but it will still go up, which will allow us to address some economic issues," Medvedev said in an interview with Slovenian national broadcaster RTV Slovenija on July 23.
Medvedev plans to visit Ljubljana on July 26-27.
The Russian premier offered to include Slovenia, which he portrayed as relatively friendly toward Russia despite economic sanctions imposed by the European Union over its aggression in Ukraine, in Russia's big Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, which was designed to bypass Ukraine and funnel Russian gas through Turkey and Greece to Europe.
"Slovenia could play a major role in this project" by helping to transport and distribute the gas throughout Europe from gas-storage facilities to be built along the border between Turkey and Greece, he said.
"Several countries have shown interest in this project, including Hungary and Serbia. So I would recommend your leaders take a close look," he said.
Russia recently announced a deal to include Greece in the lucrative pipeline project to help boost the Mediterranean country's failing economy. Medvedev's comments suggest that Russia sees the project as a good tool for courting better ties with other countries in southeast Europe.
Medvedev expressed astonishment that some Slovenian politicians have applauded a 40 percent drop in trade with Russia as proof that the EU's sanctions are working.
"I don't think it's appropriate to celebrate when our economies are decelerating and trade is on the decline," he said.
"There might be different perspectives" between the two countries on Ukraine and other matters, "but when trade is down by 40 percent, this also means bad news for Slovenian producers and businesses," he said. "What is there to celebrate?"
The premier added that, "although Russia-EU relations are not at their best now, Russia's relations with Slovenia are quite good, which is why I decided to make an official visit to your country."
Medvedev said European efforts to cultivate other natural-gas suppliers, such as by purchasing liquified gas imports from the United States, North Africa, and the Middle East, likely will end up costing European consumers.
"As for decreasing energy dependence on Russia, they can do it, of course, but at what price? They should take into account the interests of European consumers," he said, insisting that liquified imports would cost a lot more than piped-in gas from Russia.
"I hope we'll continue to supply gas to European consumers," he said, noting that Europe remains Russia's largest market for energy and other exports despite the EU sanctions and retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russia on European goods.
"The European market is of crucial importance to us," he said. "We've been selling gas to Europe for decades; we have never failed to meet our obligations, and we'd like to continue to supply gas to Europe in large volumes."
Trade between Russia and Europe has created mutual dependence as well as benefits, he said.
"They often claim that poor old Europe depends on Russia too much. Let's be clear: Russia also depends on Europe to the same extent. If we supply gas and invest billions of dollars in our deposits and pipelines, we are depending on Europe to buy our gas, just as Europe depends on gas from Russia. These are mutual investments."
Russia's move last year to sell $400 billion worth of gas over a decade to China and jointly build a gigantic pipeline network to transport it there does not mean Russia is now looking to the East and no longer values its economic trade with Europe, he said.
"It's not a shift in emphasis and it's not a change in cooperation vectors. It's just another vector of cooperation." he said. "The fact that we will supply gas to China in no way devalues our cooperation with Europe."
But Medvedev acknowledged that it was no coincidence that the turn toward China occurred after the EU imposed sanctions.
"Access to some European markets is off-limits to us," he said. "Naturally, we opted for an alternative. This is understandable."
With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and Sputnik News