Greek-Russian flirtation goes step further

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s visit to Moscow, scheduled for December 18, is not expected to result in any startling developments, yet is by no means routine. Greek-Russian relations are based on a very positive foundation of historical ties and traditional friendship that offers great potential for political and economic development. That potential, however, has to a great extent been untapped. As a result, the sum total is essentially below par. Yet that is changing, mainly due to initiatives aimed at cooperation in the energy sector that are increasing bilateral relations across the board. A major factor in that direction has been Athens’s political will but also some hard work by Russia’s Ambassador in Athens Andrei Vdovin. The first major step was the signing in Athens last March of an agreement on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis petroleum pipeline. Although Russia’s greed has been creating obstacles and delays, the project will go ahead. It might not change the geo-economic map, but is not insignificant. The second major step was taken in Istanbul last May. Taking their host, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by surprise, Karamanlis and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the proposed construction of the Southstream undersea pipeline, which will bring natural gas from Novorosisk in Russia to Burgas in Bulgaria and from there to northern Greece and on to Italy. This pipeline was designed deliberately to bypass Turkey, which is trying to become a regional energy hub. Because of obstacles raised by Ukraine to the transport of Russian gas to Europe, Moscow is seeking alternative routes, one of these being to the south through Turkey, hence the construction of the underwater Bluestream pipeline. Although Russian-Turkish relations have greatly improved, the traditional mutual distrust between them remains. In that sense, Moscow decided not to channel what amounts to half of its energy exports through Turkey, so it opted for the Southstream instead of Bluestream 2. That pipeline means that Turkey is no longer the main transit point for transporting Russian (and not only) natural gas to southern Europe. Russia will have a double route – Turkey/Greece and Bulgaria/ Greece. After some vacillation, Moscow is therefore now treating Greece as a strategic partner. The Americans are exerting political pressure to avert Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, concerned that strategic cooperation between a number of European countries and Moscow will weaken the USA’s influence in Europe in favor of Russia. Within that context, Washington has been putting strong pressure on both Ankara and Athens. A few days ago, Karamanlis and Erdogan, with the blessing of Washington, opened the Turkey-Greece-Italy pipeline transporting gas from Azerbaijan and, if possible, central Asia. But Azerbaijan is in no position to supply the kind of quantities the pipeline is designed to carry. Prospects for central Asian gas are few, since it is mainly channeled through Russia. There is the possibility of transporting Iranian gas but that has been ruled out for political reasons. In other words, Moscow has the advantage. Energy cooperation has given a fresh boost to Greek-Russian relations, as is reflected in Karamanlis’s imminent visit. That is very important, because in recent years Moscow had shown a tendency to favor Ankara. Russian-Turkish relations are traditionally burdened by on-going geopolitical competition and wars, but in the past decade there have been impressive developments in the economic sector, with a knock-on effect on the political realm. A strong pro-Turkish lobby has developed in Moscow; politicians, businessmen, journalists and academics are pushing for a strategic relationship with Ankara. In the end, the Kremlin’s traditional policy in the region has not been reversed, the reason being that Russian interests are still to a great extent at odds with those of Turkey, mainly in the Caucasus and central Asia. On the other hand, Greek-Russian relations are not overshadowed by a serious clash of interests. As a result, Moscow has stayed closer to Greece and Cyprus. Putin has not reiterated his statement about lifting the isolation of Turkish Cypriots, a statement that had pleased Erdogan. Moreover, in the next few days, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Nicosia, an important visit that indirectly strengthens efforts by Cypriot President Tasos Papadopoulos to win a new term. Athens’s policy toward Russia is influenced by two different perspectives. The first is dictated by the one-dimensional perception that sees Russia exclusively as a rival to the West. The other approaches bilateral relations within the prism of Greece’s own interests, without, of course, violating its commitments to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Meanwhile, in nearly all issues of interest to Greece, the USA at best has played the part of a Pontius Pilate and, at worst, has been opposed to Greek interests. On the other hand, Moscow generally supports Greece’s positions with regard to its national issues, or at least maintains a sympathetic neutrality. The only thing it asks of Greece is that it shows understanding for legitimate Russian interests. Despite the pressure he is under, Karamanlis cannot ignore the reality, so is attempting to lean closer to the second perspective. That fact, coupled with his very good personal rapport with Putin, have made him a privileged interlocutor in Moscow. It is no coincidence that a newly established Anglo-Saxon institution has circulated a text saying that Greece and Cyprus are Russia’s «Trojan horses» in the European Union. For the moment, Karamanlis has an additional reason for counting on Russia. Skopje has threatened to ask the UN to recognize its country as the «Republic of Macedonia» if Greece vetoes its entry to NATO. To prevent the issue reaching the UN General Assembly, where the situation is less favorable (for Greece) at least one of the permanent members of the Security Council must vote against it. Greece has good reason to hope that, if necessary, Russia will do so.