The European Union's top antitrust official today announced the start of a legal process that could leave the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom facing a $15bn fine for alleged pricing and supply violations across Eastern Europe.
The EU is desperate to shake its reliance on Russian gas, which still accounts for around a third of supplies to the bloc. For many of the former Soviet satellite states like Poland and Hungary, that figure leaps to more than 80 per cent, leaving them vulnerable to price increases.
EU officials launched an investigation last year into allegations that Gazprom abused its position as the dominant supplier in eight central and eastern European nations, restricting the free flow of gas and unfairly pegging gas prices to oil prices in long-term contracts.
Today the EU's Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, said that the bloc's regulators "have now moved to the phase of preparing a statement of objections", a reference to the first step in a legal process to charge and fine Gazprom.
Gazprom officials have always insisted that they follow EU laws. "We'd like the European Commission to stop PRing itself and start working with the documents, and we would respond to real claims rather than statements through the media," Sergei Kupriyanov, a Gazprom spokesperson, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg yesterday.
Gazprom now have eight weeks to submit a formal response before the EU decides how to proceed. A European Commission official told Reuters that they wanted to take action by the end of the year.
Russia stands accused of using its gas as a foreign policy tool, cutting off supplies to nations during political disagreements. In its efforts to wean itself off Russia's gas, the EU is increasingly relying on supplies from Norway, while the exploration of shale gas in the continent has also been mooted as an answer to Russian dominance over the energy market.