The leaders of Russia, Greece and Bulgaria agreed on Monday to speed up preparations for a new 280-kilometer pipeline that will pass through the Balkans carrying oil to Europe and the United States. The project has been under discussion for 13 years.
Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced that a timetable to finalize plans for the pipeline was agreed on during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Bulgarian counterpart Georgy Parvanov in Athens.
The three leaders say they intend to sign a formal agreement later this year for the project, which would have Russian crude oil carried by tanker to Bulgaria.
From there it will be pumped through a new pipeline to the Greek port city of Alexandroupolis for shipment to Western Europe and the United States. At an estimated cost of over $1 billion, the pipeline is designed to reduce the time and expense of transporting Russian oil to Western markets.
The project would also help ease congestion in the narrow Bosphorus Straits in Turkey, especially by large oil tankers.
The pipeline plan was originally drawn up in 1993 but has been bogged down over concerns about the construction cost and other factors, some of which President Putin implied were political.
President Putin noted that much better progress has been made on a longer pipeline in Siberia, adding that it is time to "be aware of our national interests" in finally getting the Balkan one built.
He noted how another, U.S.-backed pipeline in the region was inaugurated in July that carries oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, bypassing Russia.
Several international oil companies are expected to take part in the project, including some from the United States, Europe, Russia and Greece.
But the head of Russia's main state oil company Rosneft says Russia should play a leading role in the consortium.
Sergei Bogdantchikov says Russian oil companies should hold a major stake given that it will be their oil flowing through the pipeline.
Athens was Mr. Putin's first stop on a trip that will also take him to South Africa and Morocco.