Energy wars

The most controversial comments made by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Athens last week were her warnings against Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. A few days after her meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, the Russian energy giant Gazprom and an energy trading unit of the German chemical holding BASF signed a major natural gas deal in the Siberian city of Tomsk with the blessing of Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some Greek commentators would be tempted to describe the agreement as a sign of German disobedience toward the United States. Others would disagree, instead stressing the issue’s economic dimension. The disagreement essentially boils down to how differently the two sides define the national or private interest in the free market economy. On a regional level, Rice’s warning against the continent’s energy dependence on Russia concerned the construction of the Nabucco pipeline project, which could run from Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea and possibly from Iraq and Iran through Turkey to Austria. A section of the pipeline will cross eastern Thrace, northern Greece, and take an underwater route to southern Italy. Another section will start from Thessaloniki and will reach Austria after crossing the Western Balkans. Rice’s comments in Athens underscored that the Americans are concerned that Gazprom will try to secure its stake in the southern pipeline, or Nabucco. But this issue found its answer in Tomsk, where Gazprom’s deputy director general, Alexander Medvedev, said that Rice’s comments were an attempt to politicize energy trade. He added that no pipeline program will expand to the south without the participation of Russian gas. The Greek government sees the Greek section of the gas pipeline as an opportunity to turn the country into an energy hub. However, the specific program has become a source of friction between Washington and Moscow. The issue at this point is not whether the decisions and worries of the United States are grounded or justified. Instead, it is rooted in what appears to be a gradual decline in the prestige of American policy in the energy sector, which is benefiting Russia in terms of market demand and not political or military means. Should the trend continue, then the government would probably win the game of the southern pipeline. Gazprom is currently the fourth-strongest firm in terms of stock market value after the American companies ExxonMobil, General Electric and Microsoft. The Greek government has repeatedly said that it wishes to diversify its energy sources. That was stressed during the visits of Rice and of the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Matthew Bryza, who came to Athens a few weeks ago for energy talks. Given that Turkey is playing a leading role in the program of the southern pipeline and taking into account the systematic rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it seems likely that Washington’s warnings will miss their target as they did in the case of Germany and other European countries. The world’s most powerful countries are obviously exploiting their position in the new globalized environment. The US is taking advantage of dynamic American firms and its leverage as the sole superpower to set the global agenda in the economy sector. China is taking advantage of the export of low-priced consumer goods and India the service sector. The power of Putin’s Russia is the wealth of energy resources and the country is using this to reinforce its global status. Russia differs from other emergent economic powers with its huge experience in geopolitics. Like other small countries, Greece is gradually getting involved in a new type of competition, which is about energy instead of ideology. But the aim of the game – assuming the greatest possible power – remains the same.