Letter from Thessaloniki

Contrary to legend about Greeks and Bulgarians, on the first day of the energy conference in Sofia last week, a jubilant Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis stressed the «importance of alternative energy supplies» as well as the need for a «common European energy strategy.» Now those quotes need fine tuning. The two-day summit in Sofia was marked by inevitable political wrangling. Since it involved delegations from 28 countries from Southeastern Europe, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea as well as Central Asia, the European Union, USA, Russia, Qatar and Egypt, it hasn’t been very clear exactly who was fighting whom. Yet the unambiguous fact was that two rival gas pipelines – the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline and the South Stream project, backed by Russia – were wrestling frantically for the upper hand. Worse, the oil and gas talks lead seamlessly to the military role that NATO might play in securing this supply for its members in Eastern and Western Europe. Therefore, the interest of the USA in this affair was more than evident. The Nabucco project takes gas from the Shah Deniz gas field in Azerbaijan, starting from Turkey and ranging into the heart of Europe, with the potential for input from Iran and Iraq. By contrast, the South Stream project starts directly from Russia, taking Gazprom gas through new EU member states Romania and Bulgaria and provides ease of access to greater resources. «When Russian tanks rolled into my country, into South Ossetia, it was the clearest turning point in Russia’s relations with the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia not only managed to destabilize a pro-Western regime, but demonstrated expressively to its neighbors how defenseless they are against incursions by its armed forces,» said David Maltese of Georgia, a most sophisticated actor who now lives in Athens, after having served his military service in his homeland. He added sarcastically: «You see, Russia had been using its energy supply as a tool of its foreign policy.» As a result, the Georgian conflict has caused great damage to the viability of the Nabucco project. On the other hand, when the only alternatives are gas from Iran and the Persian Gulf, energy from Russia seems to reconcile Europe’s regional strategic interests with security of supply at less diplomatic cost. Alas, it is evident that one has to choose between the lesser of two evils. For years, the USA and the EU have been looking for ways of circumventing Russia for energy, especially in light of the controversial cuts in supply it made to Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic. And should one wonder why President Obama visited Ankara last month, the opening of the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) from Azerbaijan to Turkey may provide a reasonable answer: This pipeline should successfully enable the flow of 16 billion cubic meters of gas into Europe without interference from Moscow. However, says Maltese: «With Georgia the only viable country for the pipeline to go through – as Azerbaijan is technically at war with Armenia – the current crisis showed energy majors operating in the Caucasus how tenuous their grip on resources could become, should the Kremlin intervene once again in the affairs of its neighbors. The SCP was closed for a time during the latest violence.» The Cold War was a nuclear standoff between two military superpowers with mutually opposed economic systems and ideological beliefs. Happily, this is long gone. Yet the new period we are entering – where Russia is unashamedly capitalist – lacks many of the Cold War ingredients. Back to the Sofia summit, which demonstrated that the world is no more divided between East and West, between communists and capitalists. Romania, Egypt, Austria, the Czech Republic and some others stood up for Nabucco. The most serious defense of the South Stream project was made by Italy’s Minister for Economic Development, Claudio Scajola. «I don’t think anyone could ever imagine the EU’s energy policy could exist without Russia. Russian gas is at the backbone of all gas deliveries to the rest of Europe and so it shall be in the future,» he stated. Now, one may wonder whose part Greece took. By stressing the importance of alternative energy supplies, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis played the part of an average poker player who doesn’t take big risks. «Greece is willing to participate in any plan that is in this direction (environmentally friendly sources) and take full advantage of its geostrategic position in Southeastern Europe,» he said, noting the importance of natural gas interconnections between EU member states. Contrary to a previous announcement, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not attend the energy forum in Sofia. Bulgarian spokesman Dmitry Peskov hurried to tell those present that the change in Putin’s schedule did not necessarily mean that there were problems in negotiations between Moscow, Sofia and other European capitals on the realization of the South Stream pipeline project. «The project is being developed in a very creative atmosphere and agreements will be signed sooner or later. South Stream is a very complicated project and this fact is well-known,» Peskov said. «Since Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev is scheduled to visit Moscow on April 28, Prime Minister Putin does not really need to fly to Sofia just a few days earlier,» he added. Once in Moscow, today or tomorrow, the Bulgarian prime minister will not see just Putin. A meeting with Patriarch Cyril, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been arranged as well. But while the forum sought to inject fresh momentum into plans to build the Nabucco and South Stream gas pipelines, Greece took the opportunity to sign a new bilateral agreement with Bulgaria for the construction of a natural gas pipeline linking Komotini in northeastern Greece with Haskovo in Bulgaria. The timing was just too good. The event – the signing between Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis and his Bulgarian counterpart – has been televised, the gas pipeline will be supervised and everything will be duly advertised.

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