(RFE/RL) -- An energy summit scheduled to begin today in the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi had aimed to push forward with plans for natural-gas and oil pipelines running to European markets while circumventing Russian territory.
But the two-day summit lost some of its energy when Viktor Yushchenko, president of the key transit country of Ukraine, announced he was unable to attend. Yushchenko is running for reelection in on January 17 and said the race prevented him from traveling to Georgia.
Yushchenko's announcement had a domino effect, with the presidents of Azerbaijan, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Poland all following suit. But the meeting is going ahead, and participants still hope they can improve the prospects for projects like the Nabucco and White Stream natural-gas lines and the Odessa-Brody-Gdansk oil pipeline.
Georgia's prime minister, Nika Gilauri, is due to open the Batumi conference later this afternoon. Ahead of the gathering, Gilauri told journalists the first order of business would be presenting the new routes for transporting gas through Georgia to Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.
Gilauri singled out the Nabucco project, which aims to bring some 31 billion cubic meters of gas from the Caspian Basin and Middle East to Europe each year. Questions of funding and supplies have long stalled the project, but Gilauri said the pipeline, which is seen as a rival to Russia's South Stream line, enjoys "international support and will be built."
Nabucco, he added, was important for Georgia as part of a search for "alternative transport routes for the diversification of energy supplies from the Caspian and Asia to Europe."
Non-Russian pipeline projects received a boost a year ago, when a pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia led to a protracted gas cutoff in Europe in the midst of a bitter cold snap.
The European Union, desperate to break its reliance on Russian gas and transport routes, accelerated efforts to begin construction on pipelines capable of delivering Caucasus and Central Asian energy without crossing Russian territory.
The projects represent no more than 10 percent of the EU's overall consumption, and the bloc's enthusiasm has appeared to wane in recent months.
Guenther Oettinger, the official nominated as the EU's new energy commissioner, said during confirmation hearings today in Brussels that the European Union must be prepared to make firm decisions on Nabucco this year. And representatives at the Batumi gathering are likewise trying to regain some of the momentum lost during last year's economic crisis.
Russia, despite financial troubles of its own, has forged ahead with plans to begin work on the South Stream pipeline and finish the Nord Stream gas line running to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
The Russian newspaper "Vedomosti" quoted an expert at the Troika Dialog investment bank as saying the countries attending the Batumi summit "have aspired to lessen energy dependence on Russia for years. In reality, they have precious little to show for it."
But supplier, transit, and client countries remain formally engaged in Nabucco and other non-Russian projects. The key suppliers -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Iraq -- were a constant presence at gatherings on Nabucco and White Stream in 2009.
Despite the evaporation of the presidential contingent, the Batumi summit will still host a number of prominent officials involved in energy issues, including Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, Kazakh Deputy Energy Minister Lyazat Kiinov, and the head of Turkmenistan's oil-sector analysis and development division, Egenmamed Atamamedov.
Per Eklund, the head of the European mission to Georgia, will also be present. Richard Morningstar, the U.S. State Department special envoy for Eurasian energy, pulled out of the conference following the presidents' withdrawals.
with agency reports