West, Rus­sia bat­tle for Balkans gas cor­ri­dors

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The West and Rus­sia are bat­tling for con­trol of the trans­port of nat­u­ral gas through the Balkans, as both sides pur­sue their geopo­lit­i­cal agenda in the volatile re­gion. Moscow has suf­fered a se­ries of set­backs in the Balkans. Mon­tene­gro has joined NATO, while Mace­do­nia’s new so­cial demo­cratic gov­ern­ment seems to be dis­tanc­ing it­self from its pre­vi­ous pro-Rus­sia stance. But while the West can of­fer Balkan coun­tries in­cen­tives such as the prospect of mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union or in­vest­ment lo­cally, Rus­sia can play the en­ergy card.

Gas ac­counts for a quar­ter of the Euro­pean Union’s en­ergy con­sump­tion and in 2016, Rus­sia’s Gazprom sup­plied a third of Europe’s gas. And in the Balkans, de­pen­dence on gas looks set only to in­crease as coal-fired power sta­tions shut dow­nun­der pres­sure from the EU. Croa­tia is al­ready an EU mem­ber, but the other so-called Western Balkan coun­tries-Al­ba­nia, Bos­nia, Mace­do­nia, Mon­tene­gro, Kosovo and Ser­bia-are all at dif­fer­ent stages on the path to join­ing the bloc.

“In Ser­bia, Bos­nia, Bul­garia and Mace­do­nia, Rus­sia tries to con­vert de­pen­dence on gas sup­plies into po­lit­i­cal de­pen­dence, and ob­struct their in­te­gra­tion with the West,” said Ti­mothy Less, head of the Nova Europa po­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tancy. Nev­er­the­less, for the mo­ment at least, Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the Balkans’ en­ergy sec­tor is lim­ited by a lack of in­fra­struc­ture. With­out gas pipe­lines, it can­not sup­ply most of the coun­tries in the re­gion, said Less. And it is here that the West hopes to steal a march on Moscow by back­ing ri­val pro­jects.

Bat­tle of the pipe­lines

The com­pet­ing in­ter­ests of the West and Rus­sia in the Balkans gas mar­ket only serve to in­crease the geostrate­gic im­por­tance of the re­gion. “South­east Europe lies at the cross­roads of en­ergy cor­ri­dors link­ing East and the West,” Al­ba­nia’s for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Paskal Milo said. “The re­gion does not in­ter­est them as an eco­nomic re­source, but it is be­com­ing more im­por­tant as a tran­sit ter­ri­tory for other strate­gic mar­kets in Europe and for gas stor­age.”

Ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts, the West feels it must re­spond to Moscow’s use of en­ergy as lever­age for con­trol in the re­gion. “Af­ter some years in which Rus­sia was win­ning in the en­ergy game, the West seems to be gain­ing the ad­van­tage,” Less said. A num­ber of gas trans­mis­sion pro­jects that will ul­ti­mately re­duce the re­gion’s en­ergy de­pen­dence on Rus­sia are un­der­way. —AFP

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