The Russian gas supplies to the Balkans are a burning issue to influence the development of Russia’s relationship with the states of the region and the European Union. The plans to build new routes provoke plots of complicated political intrigue and maneuvering.
By the end of 2014 Russian Gasprom said it would cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a few years. With the South Stream pipeline project cancelled, Europe faces an increasing risk of new gas supply crisis. Slovakia is hardest affected as the route through Ukraine goes to its territory. It is accustomed to stable supplies with transit fees included into the budget. Bulgaria also has problems to face. This country suffered most in the winter of 2009 when gas delivery was temporarily interrupted as a result of Ukraine’s failure to comply with its financial obligations. Serbia and Macedonia are also affected by the cancellation of South Stream.
SLOVAKIA’S FIСO TAKES A MESSAGE TO MOSCOW
Slovakia is best suited for finding a common language with Moscow as its Prime Minister Robert Fico (unlike Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov) enjoys the relationship of personal chemistry with Russian leaders: President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. This spring Fico spoke against the anti-Russian sanctions. Slovak media was happy to report the Prime Minister received warm welcome in Moscow during his visit on June 2.
Perhaps one of the mission assignments was to provide Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with details on Eastring, a joint 832 km long link to the Turkish Stream gas pipeline to be built together with Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. The project was announced at the Riga Eastern Partnership summit. «We offer a project to Russia that should become a joint project of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia with participation of the European Union. This is associated with the Russian-Turkish route where implementation of the project will start in 2016», RT cited him saying after talks with his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. The Russian Prime Minister promised to study the plan. In case Bulgaria becomes part of the project, the length of pipeline may be increased up to 1274 km.
It’s hard to believe that Fico invited Russia to join the project without EU consent and backing. Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski had to face hard times some time ago as a result of his independent position when he came out in support for the Turkish Stream. There is ground to surmise that the invitation for Russia to join comes from the European Union. Unlike in case of Turkish Stream, Eastring will connect the existing gas infrastructure between Slovakia and Romania/Bulgaria. This will create a major European bidirectional conjunction bringing a great transit potential. The basic principle is diversification of gas sources. The planned list of suppliers was announced at the Riga Eastern Partnership summit with Russia trailing behind after Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Cyprus.
EASTRING PIPELINE AS THE ROOT OF THE CONFLICT IN MACEDONIA
The attempts to reduce the dependence on Russian gas supplies have been part of EU strategy in recent years. It wants to receive Russian gas supplies without Russia exerting any influence. It’s not about political clout only - the European Union does not want to take into account the economic interests of Russia as a supplier. The gist of EU policy is defined in The Russian Challenge report published by Chatham House, a London-based think tank. It reads, «EU energy policy should aim to deprive Russia of political leverage in energy markets, rather than to remove Russia from the European supply mix».
If the construction of Eastring were viewed as a goal set by the European Union, then it would explain the hostile attitude of the Brussels and Washington towards the government of Macedonia headed by Nikola Gruevski. An attempt to stage an «orange revolution» (like it happened in Ukraine) took place there in May. These events are linked with the dismissal of FIFA President. Zoran Zaev, the political leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), got strong support from US and European media as he tried to topple the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. To achieve the goal Zaev provoked a snooping scandal. He leaked tapes of alleged wire-tapped conversations of journalists, religious and opposition leaders allegedly gathered upon the orders of Macedonian government.
With EU backing Zaev had a formal meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the most pro-American leader in the region. As the political crisis hit Macedonia this May, Bulgaria announced the decision to reinforce its border with Macedonia in the aftermath of the Kumanovo terrorist attack, publicly stating that it has to defend itself from possible terrorist infiltration (no matter that Eastern Macedonia has never in its history experienced this problem before) and prepare for the (unlikely) possibility that the 90,000 Bulgarian passport-holders in the country could flee across the border. The goal is to obstruct the construction of Turkish Stream going around Bulgaria through the territories of Turkey, Greece and Macedonia.
Russia appears to understand well what this strategy is about: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it straight talking to media. According to him, Moscow sees the worsening situation in Macedonia as tied to the country’s refusal of economic sanctions against Russia and its support of constructing the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. «I cannot judge with a final definition, but objectively it turns out that these events in Macedonia are developing on the backdrop of the Macedonian authorities’ refusal to join in the sanction policy against Russia, as well as on the backdrop of its active support that Skopje showed in regard to the planned construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which many in Brussels and those overseas are against,» Lavrov said during a joint press conference with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic in Belgrade on May 15.
ENERGY ISSUE: THE EU’S PYRRHIC VICTORY
Looks like the policy of exerting pressure on Macedonia and the neighboring Serbia practiced by the European Union and the United States yielded results, at least temporarily. Macedonia will participate in the construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, but only after the EU and Russia have reached an agreement on the strategic project, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said on May 25. «As a country aiming to join the European community, this is exactly the guidelines we follow when making strategic decisions,» the Macedonian Prime Minister told Press24 online portal in an interview.
Before the June 2-4 visit to the United States where he was scheduled to meet US Vice President Joe Biden, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told AP in an interview that his government will accept U.S. calls to reduce dependency on Russian gas. AP reported that «in a major policy shift, the Serbian Prime Minister said his country will accept U.S. calls to reduce dependency on Russian gas by adding an American-backed pipeline that would bring gas to Europe from Azerbaijan». «Regarding energy safety, energy security, we are ready to diversify the sources of gas for Serbia, which is very important for our American friends as well», Vucic said. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for the West. Experts believe that Azerbaijan cannot supply enough gas to substitute Russia.
Russian expert Sergey Pravosudov, the director of Russian National Energy Institute, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily that the Trans Adriatic Pipeline will most certainly fail to satisfy the needs of Serbia. The project’s capacity is 10 billion cubic meters. 10 billion are destined for Italy with Bulgaria and Greece to receive 1 billion cubic meters each. It means that Serbia will get 0, 3 billion at most. Evidently, it will not meet the country’s energy requirements.
Bulgarian media also blast the anti-Russian policy of PM Borisov. They say that with the projects offered by Russia stymied, Bulgaria got nothing from the European Union, except grants to support non-government organizations.
According to Bulgarian newspaper Duma, «In 2009 Bulgaria was to turn into an energy hub in the Balkans. There were three projects in works: the Burgas-Alexandroupolis, the South Stream and the nuclear power plant in Belene… Six years have passed. Borisov has been engaged in a fierce fight against the Russian threat. Now what we have is a fig sign with the medium finger that more resembles a one-finger salute» (the fig sight is a mildly obscene gesture used in Slavic culture with two fingers and a thumb meaning refusal or disagreement).
The same opinion is spread in Serbia. The country’s Euro Atlantic or European choice has failed to bring about any economic progress. Take, for example, the neighboring Bosnia. The European Union has actually ruled it through its representatives, including Carl Bildt, a Swedish politician and diplomat who was Prime Minister of Sweden from 1991 to 1994, and former High Representative for the peace negotiations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He serves as UN Special Envoy for the Balkans at present. This politician is known for his strong anti-Russia sentiments. The EU involvement has ended up in failure. Suffice it to remember the deplorable results of privatization in Bosnia resulting in high unemployment. The Belgrade-based daily Danas reported that Vucic and other Serbian politicians have surreptitiously made a turn to the West. At that it Vucic never said anything about the refusal to import Russian gas; he made a point of the need for «diversification» of sources, the newspaper added.
To my mind, mutual understanding and dialogue – that’s what is needed to spur the process while the aggressive interference of the European Union should be rebuffed.