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Poland: Warsaw Negotiates Pact On Pipeline For Russian Gas

Poland's agreement to begin talks with Russia on a new gas pipeline to Western Europe comes despite earlier statements that it opposes the project that would bypass Ukraine. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld says that although Warsaw now argues that the line will carry only new gas, there seems to be little new information to support its change in position.

Boston, 7 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Poland appears to have found a diplomatic formula for building a new gas pipeline from Russia to Western Europe on its territory, but there seems to be little chance that it will change the effects of the project on neighboring Ukraine.

On Friday, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Steinhoff said his government is ready to open talks with Russia's Gazprom on the plan to pipe Siberian gas across the country to European customers who currently depend on Russian transit lines through Ukraine.

Ukraine has been opposing the Gazprom project in order to keep its position as the dominant transit country for Russian gas exports, accounting for some 90 percent of deliveries to Western Europe. Meanwhile, Russia has been trying to bypass Ukraine because of diversions of gas on its territory and unpaid debts of at least $1.4 billion for past gas supplies.

Since July, the Russian bypass plan has kept the Ukrainian government in turmoil as it has sought to reform its energy sector, while seeking supplies of winter fuel and keeping Moscow from gaining a controlling share in the country's pipelines.

In the past, Poland has resisted the Russian plan to build a new pipeline to the north because of concerns that it could harm Ukraine, which Warsaw regards as its strategic partner.

But the Polish statement on Friday represents almost a complete reversal in the government's position in a little more than two weeks. On October 19, the Economy Ministry, which Steinhoff heads, said that "Poland continues to oppose for economic, ecological and political reasons the project to link the Russian and Western gas networks."

That position was modified on October 24 by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who said that Poland could permit the new pipeline if Ukraine shares in the benefits through a joint venture or some other mechanism. Kwasniewski called the idea "a very clever compromise."

But there seemed to be little reflection of the earlier positions in Steinhoff's statement on Friday. Under Poland's new formula for the pipeline proposal, the government would allow the project as long as it carries only new gas from Russia rather than fuel taken from existing Ukrainian lines. While insisting that Poland's new line "must not violate the status quo of any of its neighbors," Steinhoff said that talks would start "immediately" on the project for additional gas supplies to Europe.

The latest Polish position appears to be a distinction without a difference, as far as the effects on Ukraine are concerned.

First, Gazprom has already been arguing for three months that the new pipeline would be used to carry gas from Russia's Yamal Peninsula under a 1993 agreement that Poland signed for two lines to carry gas from the Arctic gas field. The first Yamal link has already been built across Poland. Ukraine's transit gas has come from other Siberian areas.

Second, the gas supplies from one region of Russia can easily be offset by supplies from somewhere else. Because fuel is a commodity, it makes little difference to consumers or transit countries whether it comes from new or old fields.

Third, the addition of up to 60 billion cubic meters of annual gas transit through Poland will accomplish Russia's strategic goal of reducing reliance on Ukrainian transit, which has been one of Moscow's main objectives all along. Poland's new formula is likely to have the same effect on Ukraine as if Warsaw had agreed to the pipeline when it was first proposed.

The agreement to open negotiations on the project appears to fulfil predictions by both Gazprom officials and industry analysts that Poland would gradually relent. The only surprise may be that the turnaround in position has come so fast.

Poland's interest as a future member of the European Union in becoming a major route for European energy supplies may be paramount. If Russia succeeds in joining its economic goals with those of Western Europe, it seems unlikely that either Ukraine or Poland will now stand in the way.