COMMENT

A crucial stopover

By Costas Iordanidis

The scheduled stopover in Athens by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 4 and the three-way talks he is due to have with his Bulgarian counterpart Georgi Parvanov and Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis are expected to mark the surmounting of the various problems that have hindered the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline over the years. The April 2005 signing of a memorandum by the Greek, Bulgarian and Russian governments for the pipeline's construction - inspired by the Latsis Group's Nikos Grigoriadis and backed by successive Greek governments over the past 13 years - gave the impression the matter had been resolved. But queries arose regarding how control of the project would be apportioned among the three partners. Despite having secured 51 percent of the project, Russia sought further financial backing. And it is quite likely that Putin will take advantage of scheduled talks in Athens to submit a proposal to the other two parties involved in the deal. The die was cast when Moscow decided the alternative prospect of an oil pipeline linking the Black Sea town of Samsun to the Turkish port of Ceyhan was not economically viable; this followed a recent visit to Turkey by representatives of Russian energy firm TKN-BP. But it was not only the cost of the Turkish pipeline that went against Moscow's interests. The crisis with Ukraine - whose pipeline conveys 80 percent of the Russian natural gas Gazprom has agreed to send to Europe - highlighted the disadvantages of exclusive dependence on one country's exports. Russian oil from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk is transported via the dangerously busy Bosporus. The creation of a Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline would give Turkey a monopoly on rights to exporting oil from the Caspian and Russia to the south, which conflicts with Russian business logic and national interests. In this whole debate, however, it would be unfair not to consider the efforts made by Greece. Talks this June between Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas and the Russian official in charge of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline, Anatoly Yanovsky, were extremely significant. These talks were followed by a European Union summit in Luxembourg during which European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs expressed the Commission's interest in funding the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline. Washington's stance regarding the transport of Caspian oil via Russia, Bulgaria and Greece was firmly negative from the outset, despite the fact that the Latsis Group included US firm Chevron in the pipeline's program. The American firm's interest was in the construction of a «Turkish» Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. At one stage, the State Department - via the US Embassy in Sofia - made the dubious decision of funding a feasibility study for the construction of another pipeline to transport oil via Russia, the Black Sea and then through a pipeline starting in Bulgaria, crossing the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Albania and culminating in the Adriatic. Since then, there have been various essential changes. Putin's Russia has become the world's biggest energy player and is consolidating its position in Europe despite US objections. Meanwhile, Bulgaria is in the last phase of accession talks with the EU, which is considering funding the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline. And so US objections on this matter have been curtailed. Currently, America is pressuring Ankara - and Greece, although less so - to prevent the transport of Russian natural gas via a pipeline that would cross Greece and end up in Italy. But this is another matter that will probably be discussed during Karamanlis's talks with Putin. As for Turkey, it seems it will settle for a pipeline in eastern Thrace with the same potential of the Greek-Bulgarian one. Of course the latter project does not have great economic significance as the levies to be pocketed by the Greek state for allowing the transport of 35 million tons of oil per year are not so impressive. But from a geostrategic point of view, the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline is exceptionally interesting and so the forthcoming meeting between Karamanlis, Putin and Parvanov in Athens is of critical significance.

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