Athens under pressure from US and Russia over energy

Greece is trying to reconcile its political and defense commitments to the USA with the cooperation it is pursuing with Russia in the energy sector. It is no easy task, as it is being brought up against the often conflicting interests between West and East which, at the dawn of the 21st century, are largely focused on energy. Athens is trying to make use of its gradual entry into Eurasia’s energy sector for the obvious economic and geopolitical benefits, but while doing so must create an equilibrium between the superpower’s priorities and demands on the one hand and pressure from the emerging Russian energy giant on the other. An initial reading of the factors at play would put Greece, a member of the European Union and NATO, in the Western camp. From many aspects, that is where it belongs. However, the reality in the energy sector complicates the situation. Meanwhile, the USA’s often clumsy interventions, even when they are supporting proposals that are clearly both of economic and political benefit, such as the need to diversify energy sources, are a source of aggravation and sometimes result in opposition. A typical example was the recent opening of the TGI gas pipeline at the Greek-Turkish border, that emphasized the different approaches taken by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis. The lack of coordination between the two was worrying, particularly at a time when the situation calls for a national strategy that transcends personal preferences. With its sights trained on deepening cooperation with Moscow and perhaps in a display of bitterness of over the USA’s failure to support Athens in its dispute with Skopje, the prime minister’s office made an effort to downplay the presence at the ceremony of US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who had worked with the Foreign Ministry’s bureau regarding the visit. The Americans, with Ankara’s keen backing, presented themselves at the ceremony for the purpose of emphasizing – chiefly for Russia’s benefit – their supremacy in the region stretching from Azerbaijan, across Georgia to Turkey and Greece. Bodman, who had visited Ankara, wanted to meet with Karmanalis but had not scheduled a meeting ahead of time. It was no coincidence that the Greek prime minister chose not to introduce Bodman (Development Minister Christos Folias was forced to avoid mentioning names, welcoming only «all the distinguished energy ministers»). Meanwhile, the government made a concerted effort not to include the US official in the official photograph, as the leaders of Greece, Turkey and Azerbaijan pushed the button that activated the gas flow to Greece. Greece was annoyed that there had been no prior arrangements; this resulted in absurd situations, such as disagreements over where Bodman was to sit. Similarly, a distinguished Greek diplomat called discreet attention to the haste shown by new US Ambassador in Athens Daniel Speckhard to be present at the ceremony before he had even presented his credentials to the Greek president. A source involved in organizing the ceremony blamed the prime minister’s office, explaining that if they had not wanted to draw attention to the US minister, instead of trying to sideline him, they could have invited Russian and European officials as well. The ‘Greece’ card Washington and Brussels are in favor of the diversification of energy sources, but also of the transport mechanisms so as to avert the risk of complete dependence on one country. The main goal of Western policy is Moscow, which in turn is pushing for a greater share in the amount of its energy reaching European markets. Clearly the Russians are counting on Greece: A Russian official told Kathimerini that Greece was Russia’s closest partner among the NATO member states. Russia wants its own gas to be transported through the TGI pipeline, given the limited amount of gas coming from Azerbaijan. In July, Karamanlis agreed in principle with Putin to promote the construction of a new pipeline, the Southstream project. Construction is to begin in 2009 and transport 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year from Russia to Europe via the Black Sea, through Bulgaria, Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, Russian petroleum will be reaching the Aegean via the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline. Both projects will top the agenda for the Karamanlis-Putin talks on December 18 in Moscow.