Leaders and officials from 12 Black Sea countries discussed closer cooperation with the European Union and new energy routes during a summit in Istanbul.
The Black Sea Economic Cooperation organization, or BSEC, founded 15 years ago, is aiming to boost its energy sector, particularly as the EU seeks to diversify its energy routes and supplies.
With combined oil and gas reserves second only to those of Persian Gulf countries, BSEC members have launched several pipeline projects in hopes of becoming an energy corridor for Caspian and Black sea energy supplies to the West. The plans, however, face financial questions and rivalry from Russia, which has assumed a central role in energy supply to Europe.
"Securing energy resources is one of the main sources of development," said Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the summit. In a closing statement, member countries said they would increase coordination in the energy industry as well as cooperation with the European Union.
This year's summit was the first attended by a representative of the European Union, in which three BSEC countries Greece, Romania and Bulgaria are members. Others such as Turkey are negotiating membership. Also attending were ministers and leaders from Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldavia and Romania. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, came as an observer.
On Tuesday, BSEC energy ministers open a three-day energy conference.
"Common projects with the European Union and the reforms by the organization are the two most significant successes of this summit," Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said, without giving details of the reforms.
The EU is encouraging the BSEC members' pipeline projects, as well as a plan to build a highway around the Black Sea to connect member nations and boost regional trade.
The 2,000-kilometer-long (1,240-mile-long) ring road project was launched at a BSEC summit in April, but funding was yet to be determined. It also was unclear when construction might begin.
Turkey, a founding BSEC member, has initiated several pipeline projects to supply energy-hungry Western markets. Last year an oil pipeline opened from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Ceyhan, Turkey's Mediterranean oil hub. Construction of another, to carry Kazakh and Russian oil from the Black Sea coast to Ceyhan, started in April. That pipeline was expected to open in 2009.
However, Turkey faces tough competition from Russia, which has launched rival projects or studies for linking energy sources from the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to the EU through Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary.
The EU imports more than 40 percent of its natural gas, almost half of which comes from Russia. Some central and eastern European countries depend almost entirely on Russian gas.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that the "dialogue with the European Union is encouraging." Erdogan's comment, made at a closed-door meeting, was provided to journalists by BSEC officials.
The EU in April launched the "Black Sea Synergy" initiative to promote peace, energy projects and transportation, saying that since Romania and Bulgaria became EU members in January, it has a bigger stake in the region's stability and prosperity.
Several BSEC countries are still struggling to overcome disputes. Armenia and Azerbaijan were embroiled in a six-year conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is inside Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenian forces. Some 30,000 people were killed before a 1994 cease-fire ended hostilities.
Turkey and Armenia also have no formal ties because of a dispute over the World War I killings of ethnic Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Armenia calls the killings a genocide; Turkey says they were a result of civil conflict.