Lithuania proposes pausing Nord Stream 2 until Russian elections

VILNIUS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany should be paused until Russia’s parliamentary elections in September to pressure Moscow for democratic reforms and as a compromise between its European supporters and critics, Lithuania’s foreign affairs minister said on Friday.

European foreign ministers are expected to reach an agreement on Monday to impose sanctions on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny

The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 has been increasingly in focus since Navalny’s jailing and Russia’s announcement on Friday of the expulsion of European diplomats. But Germany has stood by it, saying it is a commercial project.

“The freeze could be a compromise”, Lithuania’s Gabrielius Landsbergis told Reuters.

“We do not propose to cancel the project, only to pause it. And to continue it when we are dealing with a democratically elected Russian government. This can actually increase support for the pipeline”.

Putin on Wednesday accused the countries that have called for sanctions against the pipeline of trying to use it as a tool to punish Russia.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression.

The operating company of Nord Stream 2, which is 94% complete, resumed laying pipes in Danish waters this month. A Danish maritime regulator has said the work was due to be finished by the end of April.

“If we reward Russia with gas contracts for repressing the opposition, it doesn’t send the right signal to Russia, and it fragments European unity”, Landsbergis said.

Putin said this week that Russia needed to ensure that its parliamentary elections scheduled for September are free of foreign meddling, following mass protests calling for the release of Navalny.

Opposition activists and European observers questioned the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections in 2016 in which Putin’s ruling United Russia party took three-quarters of the seats and liberal opposition parties failed to win a single seat. (Reporting by Andrius Sytas Editing by Paul Simao)