Russia, Turkey, and the Balkans

Russia, Turkey, and the Balkans

It is possible that a decisive breakthrough has been made in the project to build the Turkish Stream pipeline, which is intended to be a key element in the energy security of the Balkans and all of Southeastern Europe. Turkey’s parliament has overwhelmingly ratified the Oct. 10 agreement between Moscow and Ankara to build a gas pipeline, and the relevant document has been signed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

As noted by the Turkish media, the vote on Turkish Stream in the national parliament has shown that this project enjoys unprecedented support from the country’s MPs as well as forces within society. The newspaper Milliyet claims that 210 of the 223 parliamentary deputies who voted cast their ballots in favor of building the gas pipeline. 

Decisions made by the highest organs of state power in Turkey have removed the final obstacles to the project. Alexey Miller, the chairman of the board of directors at Gazprom, has confirmed that the construction of the offshore section of the pipeline will begin in less than a year, in the latter part of 2017. «Both branches of the pipeline will be operational before the end of 2019», Miller said.

Ankara’s support for Turkish Stream is greatly motivated by its own calculations, and although those are contingent upon circumstances, in this case those calculations objectively favor the interests of both Russia as well as the countries of Southeastern Europe. During the August meeting in St. Petersburg between Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, the Turkish president stated that Turkey was interested in the construction of the pipeline, since that nation intends to ship gas to Europe, thus providing financial and political benefits for the Turks. In addition, this will furnish Ankara with additional leverage over the European Union. 

This is an example of Brussels being forced to reap the fruits of its own short-sighted policy. By blocking the completion of the South Stream project over fears of strengthening Russia’s hand, the heads of the European Commission made a choice to become dependent on Turkey. And suddenly Ankara is in possession of two different tools for exerting pressure on the EU - it is the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of new refugees and can now also act as a “gas shutoff valve.”

Europe’s growing demand for Russian gas is also playing into Turkey’s hands. Specifically, gas exports from Russia to Italy (a country that could in the future tap into the export branch of the Turkish Stream pipeline) rose 36.5% between Nov. 1 and 30 of this year, compared to the same period in 2015, according to Gazprom.

The successful promotion of Turkish Stream is taking on key significance not only in the gas sector, but also as part of the wider picture to ensure the energy security of the Balkans and Southeastern Europe. This represents new prospects for cooperation between the states of that region and Russia, including on matters of nuclear energy. Moscow and Ankara plan to place a high strategic priority on the construction of the nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, the first unit of which could be operational by 2023. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev discussed the relevant issues with his Turkish counterpart Binali Yıldırım on Dec. 6. 

«Now we can pick up speed and make sure that at least the first unit of the nuclear power plant is ready for operation by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey», emphasized the head of the Russian government. The Turkish newspaper Akşam had this to say about the current state of the Russian-Turkish relationship, «Prime Minister Yıldırım’s briefcase is jam-packed and there are masses of topics to be discussed». That daily suggests that, at present, these relations are expanding within a tightly-knit array of economic and political issues that includes the context of a settlement of the crisis in Syria, as well as Moscow’s more active involvement - applauded by Turkey - in resolving the conflict in Cyprus. «Just imagine, Russia and Turkey, acting together, establishing a cease-fire in Syria. And then, thanks to the efforts of those two countries, the negotiations over Cyprus reach a certain point. Could the US really still be called a ‘superpower’ after all that?» the Turkish newspaper asks, posing a rhetorical question.

Russian and Turkish cooperation in the sector of gas and nuclear energy sends a clear signal to Bulgaria, which finds itself with nowhere to turn on this issue and thus facing serious financial losses. As we know, under pressure from the European Union, in 2012 the Bulgarians violated a Russian-Bulgarian agreement by unilaterally abandoning the construction of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant, although by that time the initial set of equipment for the plant had already been manufactured in Russia. The Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce in Geneva reviewed the matter, and in the end Bulgaria was forced to reimburse Russia’s Atomstroyexport 620 million euros in damages. 

Mindlessly trailing after Brussels is not the best way to ensure one’s own energy and financial security.