ECONOMY

Greece skeptical about Russian proposal for natural gas transit

Athens was not surprised when the visiting head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, last week proposed that Greece act as a transit hub for the transmission of natural gas to the bigger market of Western Europe, sources say. The Greek response, however, was rather cool. Gazprom’s plan seems a unique opportunity for Greece to put into practice the idea of becoming an energy junction between East and West. Yet the proposal does contain some parameters that require great care. The Russian idea is linked with the new long-term geopolitical strategy of Gazprom, the biggest producer of natural gas, controlling 26.7 percent of the world’s reserves. It has recently become an oil company, too, following its absorption of the Sibneft oil producer. This strategy is based on an aggressive regrouping, stemming from the control of its rich reserves, and aimed at becoming the world’s dominant player in energy. The Greek officials who spoke with the Russians reported that they detected Gazprom’s obvious ambition toward ruling the global market. «We are the sole producer with immediately disposable gas to fill the pipeline,» Miller was reported to have said. He also stated that his company has taken over the management of the reserves of Turkmenistan for 25 years. The Turkey-Greece-Italy pipeline, with a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters, provides a way out for Gazprom as an alternative to Ukraine and the Baltic pipeline transmitting gas to Germany directly from Siberia. Filling the pipeline (part of which Greece and Turkey have begun constructing) with Russian gas would reverse the very idea behind the project. This was based on the need by the European Union to reduce its dependence on natural gas from Russia, which comes to 25 percent. The project’s plan, which the EU has included in the inter-European network projects and is funding, provides for the transmission of gas to the European market from an alternative to Russian suppliers (Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan etc). Russia initially saw the collaboration between Turkey, Greece and Italy in a negative light. Now, after highlighting the problem of «monopolistic routing» through its dispute with Ukraine and sending a message to Europe, too, it is trying to get in the way of rival suppliers, appearing available «right here, right now» to fill the pipeline from the very start of its operation. «The Russians proceed through their reserves,» said one of the officials who attended last week’s Greek-Russian negotiations, paraphrasing the saying «China proceeds through its size.» If Greece gains a transit role in the natural gas market, it will undoubtedly upgrade its geopolitical standing. As an EU member, though, it will have to take other factors into account. «Opening another door to the same suppliers is like becoming more hostage to them,» commented an energy official. The skepticism of the Greek side is absolutely justified and the Greek government’s decision to charge «working groups» with the issue shows that at present it maintains its reservations. The final decision could not be independent of its EU partners, let alone when the supply of natural gas after the Russian-Ukranian dispute tops the agenda of the European Parliament. The latter has already asked for EU energy policy targets to be revised so that they include the broadening of alternative suppliers and the creation of competitive markets, particularly in natural gas.