- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Russia’s New Year’s Day cutoff of natural gas to Europe has boosted Romania’s strategic value as the route for a competing pipeline, Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu said yesterday.

Mr. Ungureanu, in Washington this week for talks with senior Bush administration officials, said the brief midwinter interruption in Russian gas supplies underscored Romania’s argument about the importance of the Black Sea region to the security of Europe and the West.

“We have been talking about this idea for a long time, but for some in Europe, this was a political watershed,” he said during a breakfast meeting with a small group of reporters.

“It takes quite a fuss to get even the heads of the governments of Europe to discuss the issue, but it was an event everyone could understand: ‘Someone turned the taps off.’ ”

The cutoff, which sprang from a bitter pricing dispute between Russia’s gas monopoly and Ukraine, focused new attention on the so-called Nabucco pipeline, a $6 billion, 1,760-mile project that would bypass Russia while delivering natural gas from Central Asia and the Middle East to European customers.

The planned route would pass through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria for distribution across Western Europe. Moscow has proposed a competing pipeline route from Russia through Turkey and to the West.

Despite the concerns, Mr. Ungureanu said, Romania did not favor a policy of shutting out Russia, as he said some other former Soviet-bloc states advocated.

“We don’t think Russia’s shortcoming can be addressed by isolating Russia,” he said. “Russia needs its Western partners just as much as we need Russia.”

Since joining NATO in 2004, Romania has championed the importance of the Black Sea region, saying the security, economic and environmental challenges facing the countries on its shores have a direct impact on the stability of Europe as a whole.

Mr. Ungureanu said the agreement signed in December to establish new U.S. military staging bases in Romania was a sign that Washington also appreciated the rising importance of the Black Sea region.

“There is actually now a bit of a competition between [the European Union] and Washington over who can deal better with the challenges in our region,” he said.

The foreign minister said Romania is committed to keeping its 870 troops in Iraq, despite the withdrawals of several other nations in the U.S.-led coalition.

“There is certainly no weakening of the resolve of Romania about Iraq,” he said. “We have said that until the day when the Iraqi authorities can deal fully with their own security … we will be there.”

The minister said bilateral relations with the United States were strong, but he expressed frustration that improved ties have not led to more American investment in Romania’s economy.

He said direct U.S. investment in Romania was $800 million — “practically nil” — despite NATO membership and the vote of confidence shown by the basing agreement.

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