Serbia's prime minister says Gazprom's South Stream pipeline meant to transport Russian natural gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine, will help provide jobs and boost the Balkan country's regional position.

In an interview with the Associated Press ahead of the formal start of the pipeline construction work Sunday, Ivica Dacic insisted Serbia's traditionally close ties with Russia do not affect its bid to join the European Union. But he also suggested that Western powers have pushed Serbia closer to Russia.

The trans-European pipeline is expected to start operating in December 2015.

It is expected to ship up to 63 billion cubic meters (2 trillion cubic feet) of gas annually to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Italy in one leg and Croatia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey in a second.