West, Russia battle for Balkans gas corridors
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