A new kind of war

The sweeping changes of 1989 brought an end to the Soviet system in Europe but other geostrategic characteristics of the international system over the past 50 years refuse to fade away. Antagonism between Moscow and Washington is no longer militaristic and political but exists mainly in the energy sector. The Greek government felt the competition between the two superpowers during the recent visit to Athens by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who warned of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. Then came US Vice President Dick Cheney’s stinging rebuke of Russia during his trip to Vilnius last week. Rice’s comments were prompted by two concerns. The first is the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which is planned to reach Austria via Turkey. Another section of the pipeline will head southward through northern Greece and extend to southern Italy via an undersea route. Rice’s comments implied that Russian gas should not be transferred from the Nabucco pipeline, inviting a reaction by Gazprom’s deputy director general, Alexander Medvedev, who said no pipeline program can extend south without the participation of Russian gas. It’s doubtful whether Rice’s recommendations were able to persuade Athens and Ankara as Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually reached an agreement on the Nabucco pipeline project, specifically the stretch that will run through Greece. A second issue that Rice had on the agenda is the plan to build a trans-Balkan pipeline that will bypass the busy Bosporus in Turkey and link Bulgaria’s Black Sea port of Burgas with After her visit to Sofia the Bulgarian government announced that the state will not participate in the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline project, opening the gates to private firms – provided, of course, there is private interest. The Greek and Bulgarian governments confirmed their commitment to the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project but the whole program has lost its momentum. Shortly after Rice’s comments, Cheney, speaking in the capital of Lithuania, a country that has traditionally been skeptical of Moscow, criticized Russia, saying it is trying to undermine the neighboring states by using its vast energy resources to «blackmail» them. Competition between the large powers is a fact of life and will not go away with the breakdown of communist regimes. Cheney tried to politicize the rivalry by accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of backpedaling on democracy. Human rights talk provided a convincing ideological arsenal for the West at the height of the Soviet Union and enjoyed the backing of the vast majority of Europeans. That was then. Times have changed. The collapse of the communist system brought ideological competition between the East and West to an end. Today, those championing the export of democracy are mostly found in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Great Britain. To be sure, some of the former Soviet Union satellites in Europe still suffer the traumas left by the Soviet empire but are not really in any position to shape European Union policy. It will be a long time before Moscow will draw criticism on energy concerns. One of the main reasons for this is that the surge in fuel prices is caused by instability in the Middle East for which US policies are also held responsible. Russia is merely exploiting the juncture and is a far more reliable power than all the other oil-producing states, which are growing increasingly volatile domestically.