VILNIUS - Seven months after Russia decided to cut oil supplies to Lithuania, depriving the Baltics' only refinery of life-sustaining feedstock, the European Commission finally addressed the problem and promised to take it up with Moscow. In a letter to Lithuania's and Poland's prime ministers, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso acknowledged the extent of the oil supply crisis and its harm to the two countries' economic interests.
He even promised that he would take up the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet in May. According to the Lithuanian government's press service, Barroso wrote that Russia's decision not to supply Lithuania with oil through the Druzhba pipeline was part of larger energy-related questions that the EU has for Russia and that need to be resolved.
"I will address the matter in my meeting with president Putin at the forthcoming EU-Russia summit in May if it is not settled by then," wrote Barroso, according to the EU Observer.
"I and commissioner [Andris] Piebalgs have been pressing the Russians on the issue of the cessation of oil supplies through the Druzhba pipeline," he added.
Russia ceased pumping oil through the pipeline due to what it said was a leak in the spur in Belarus. Lithuanian Foreign Ministry officials have said that they were not allowed to inspect the pipeline and therefore have no way to verify the extent of the damage.
When asked last summer whether Transneft, Russia's oil pipeline monopoly, would repair the pipe, CEO Sergei Vainshtok said the pipeline was 42 years old and would have to be rebuilt completely and that the company had other priorities.
The leak occurred not long after the Lithuanian government approved an ownership transfer of Mazeikiu Nafta, the refinery, to Poland's PKN Orlen. Russian oil companies had coveted the asset, and the Kremlin wanted to see one of their own take control of the refinery.
Deprived of supplies via pipeline, Mazeikiu Nafta has been forced to import crude oil supplies through the Butinge terminal on the Baltic Sea, which is considerably more expensive. The company's financials took a steep hit last year, with earnings plummeting some 75 percent.
Previous attempts to bring Russia to the negotiating table over the issue have fallen flat. Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said that Commissioner Piebalgs, a Latvian, wrote to Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, and Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas also wrote to his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov. Neither attempt worked.
Finally, on March 2 Kirkilas and Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski send a letter to Barroso and the German presidency of the European Council, appealing to the two sides to send a "clear signal" to Moscow that the Druzhba pipeline is a matter of pan-European importance.
They also wrote that the EU needed more solidarity in the energy sphere, which Barroso agreed with in his response.
By February, the lack of a clear response from Brussels was beginning to aggravate Lithuanian officials, until finally Zygimantas Pavilionis, a ranking Lithuanian diplomat, warned that the Baltic state could become "a second Poland" and veto a much-needed EU-Russia trade agreement.
Poland refused to sign on the EU-Russia trade agreement in November after Brussels was slow to take up the issue of Russia's banning of Polish meat and dairy exports.
Moscow banned Polish meat and dairy exports in November 2005, claiming there was poor quality, third-party products from non-EU countries in the exports.
Still, even with Barroso engaged there is little certainty that Russia will suddenly desire to repair the pipeline. But with Brussels working actively on its side, Lithuania and Poland are at least assured of a fighting chance.
Mazeikiu Nafta is Lithuania's largest enterprise, accounting for some 14 percent of GDP, and also its largest taxpayer.