May 21, 2007 / 4:28 PM / 12 years ago

PREVIEW-Putin heads for Austria, energy high on agenda

VIENNA, May 21 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin flies to Austria on Wednesday for a visit expected to show the Kremlin can get along with individual EU members, even if its relationship with the bloc is rocky.

Putin arrives less than a week after an EU-Russia summit ended in clashes over Russian democracy, and Moscow’s tetchy relations with Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. A strategic partnership pact between Russia and the bloc is stalled.

Even before the visit, the Russian leader drew fire from some Austrian media, who accused him of dodging tough questions about his human rights record when he pulled out of a pre-visit interview with ORF Austrian state television.

But the Kremlin said Putin had to cancel because of a schedule change and his chief foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko said relations between Vienna and Moscow were positive and “not burdened with difficult problems”.

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer told a Russian newspaper that energy issues would be high on the agenda.

Russia is the EU’s main source of natural gas. And after a series of interruptions that briefly disrupted the flow to EU states, the bloc is trying to ensure more secure supplies.

“I am certain we can ensure supplies without disruptions and stable relations both between Austria and Russia and in the framework of the European Union,” Gusenbauer told the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper.

PIPELINES

Austria is a lead participant in the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would ship gas from the Caspian Sea region to central Europe via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary — in a route that would bypass Russia.

The project is part of EU efforts to diversify energy supplies and supply routes away from Russia. Moscow is keen to hang on to its control and earlier this month signed a deal to lock in Central Asian gas to its own pipeline network.

Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) has said Nabucco is not feasible without its gas — possibly pointing the way to a deal under which Russia supplies some of the fuel for the pipeline.

The two countries already cooperate on energy. Gazprom supplies most of Austria’s gas and wants to win deeper access to distribution and gas storage there, while Austria, with its strategic location in the heart of Europe, may become a major hub for gas supplies to the wider EU.

But tension, including criticism from EU states towards Putin’s governing style, remains.

Austrian television said when Kremlin officials called to cancel the Putin interview, they cited a promotional trailer they viewed as “unfriendly.” The incident gave media a chance to poke fun at Putin, whom detractors say is intolerant of criticism.

Austrian daily Neue Vorarlberger Tageszeitung put a mock advisory on Monday on its front page suggesting interviews with Putin should stick to questions like “How was your flight?” or “Don’t you agree that pluralism just confuses people?”

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