By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova is ready to pursue and win a court challenge to Russian gas giant Gazprom's demand for more than $700 million as payment for past gas supplies, the country's energy minister said on Thursday.
Gazprom this week rejected Moldova's assertion that it owed only $8.6 million for past supplies and said it would press its claim to recover arrears of $709 million. Moldova established the $8.6 million figure on the basis of an international audit.
Moldovan Energy Minister Victor Parlicov said he believed the matter could well lead to litigation in Moscow's Arbitration Court and Moldova, an ex-Soviet state lying between Ukraine and EU member Romania, would win its case.
Moldova previously relied heavily on Gazprom for its supplies, but has since, with help from the European Union, turned to other sources.
"Should the matter of arrears go to arbitration, even in Moscow, they have no chance," Parlicov told the news outlet agora.md.
"One of the reasons we have agreed to pay a specific sum and end this matter amicably ... is the fact that Gazprom failed to fulfill its contractual obligations last winter. We will examine this in the Moscow Arbitration Court where the agreement was drawn up."
That was a reference to Gazprom's reducing gas supplies to Moldova by 60 percent at one point last year over technical issues concerning gas flows through Ukraine.
Parlicov said Moldova nonetheless stood little chance of recovering losses from supply shortages 2022-2023 that it estimated at $160 million.
He said the audit formed the basis of its legal arguments, though he acknowledged that the Supervisory Board of Moldovagaz, a Gazprom subsidiary, could reject its findings.
Russia's foreign ministry urged the ex-Soviet state's authorities to refrain from politicising energy issues.
Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean said that Moldova's 2.5 million citizens were not obliged to pay the bills as presented by Gazprom.
(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ron Popeski and Sandra Maler)