* Small supplies of Romanian gas, but big potential
* Moldova reliant on Russian gas, but pursuing EU ties
* Pipeline launched against backdrop of supply fears in
By Luiza Ilie
ZAGARANCEA, Moldova, Aug 27 Moldova took a small
but symbolic step towards easing its reliance on Russian gas
imports on Wednesday when it inaugurated a pipeline that will
bring in Romanian gas from next week.
With fears mounting of a winter cut-off in gas supplies to
Europe from Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, the prime
ministers of Moldova and European Union member Romania formally
unveiled the 43-km (27 miles) pipeline on the 23rd anniversary
of Moldova's independence from the Soviet Union.
The government led by Moldova's pro-Western prime minister,
Iurie Leanca, signed up to closer ties with the EU earlier this
year, defying warnings from Russia and joining ex-Soviet peers
Ukraine and Georgia in pulling away from Moscow.
"Today is a very important date for Moldova's energy
independence," Leanca told a crowd of about 200 people - among
them EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger - gathered in a
field near the Moldovan village of Zagarancea.
"In a maximum of two years our energy system will be
perfectly interconnected with Europe and we will be able to buy
gas either from the East or West."
Initially, the pipeline will carry about 50 million cubic
metres of gas a year to Moldova, a fraction of Romania's annual
production of about 11 billion cubic metres and covering about 5
percent of Moldova's total needs.
But the pipeline has the potential to carry 1.5 billion
cubic metres, which could cover Moldova's needs, providing
Romania invests further in stations to boost pressure and
Moldova extends the pipeline another 104 km to the capital
The inauguration comes against a backdrop of fresh fears of
disruptions to Russian gas supplies to Europe, via Ukraine, over
the coming winter.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on Wednesday
Kiev knew of Russian plans to halt gas flows to Europe this
winter, which Moscow denied.
Russian gas flows to Ukraine have been halted three times in
the past decade due to price disputes, and flows to the EU were
disrupted in 2006 and 2009 after Ukraine took some of the gas
intended for the bloc to meet its own winter demand.
The EU provided about a third of the 26 million euros ($34
million) it cost to build the pipeline connecting the eastern
Romanian city of Iasi to the small Moldovan town of Ungheni.
Moldovans gathered in the field said they hoped the pipeline
would help boost their economy, one of the poorest in Europe,
and bring down energy prices.
"When there are two competitors in a market, the buyer
wins," said 42-year-old Alexei Ghebos, a public employee from a
(1 US dollar = 0.7582 euro)
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Michael Urquhart)