Gas geopolitics


MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti.) Gas prices have become the central issue in relations between post-Soviet countries.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which recently set up the Union of Democratic Choice (UDC), a geopolitical alternative to Russia, are all consumers of Russian gas.

Until now Russia tried to preserve subsidies for its CIS partners, believing that this way it will keep them within its orbit. The dubious results of this policy became evident long ago. It is enough to recall the various political maneuvers of Eduard Shevardnadze, who could never have been described as Russia's friend, but this did not prevent him from accepting concessions. The same can be said about Ukraine's former President Leonid Kuchma, who included plans to join NATO in his country's military doctrine and then dropped it when rapprochement with Russia seemed more beneficial. Moldovan Communists began their rule with pro-Russian rhetoric and announcing plans to give the Russian language official status. Later, however, they appealed to the West seeking to abandon the so-called Kozak plan of the Transdnestr settlement, which, by the way, envisaged the official status for Russian.

In the past, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova often maneuvered between Russia and the West, but now their geopolitical priorities have been determined clearly. The governments and most elites in these countries are openly pro-Western, although still mentioning the need to develop relations with Russia. In Georgia parliamentary opposition criticizes Russia even more harshly than the Mikhail Saakashvili government. In Moldova, all parties represented in parliament are more or less tilted toward the West. Pro-Western sentiments dominate the Ukrainian elite as well.

As a result, Russia has chosen to give up the pointless wooing of pro-Western regimes and to protect its own interests. The result is its far tougher gas policy toward the members of the UDC, which, oddly enough, have turned out to be unprepared for this development. Perhaps, they counted on the inert nature of Russian gas diplomacy. Remarkably, Russia's position toward Ukraine and Georgia is much more complicated than an arbitrary price hike. And the notion of "Russian interests" is more complicated than it may seem.

Observers were surprised to learn that Gazprom will raise the gas price from $63 to $110 per 1,000 cu m for Georgia and from $50 to $230 for Ukraine. The difference is too great to be accidental. The fact is that Russia is pursuing two aims at once. The first one is to raise Gazprom's earnings, as it is one of the biggest contributors to the country's budget. The other is to try to establish control over gas pipelines in the countries in question. In the present geopolitical situation the country that controls energy transportation wins the game (in the Middle Ages, caravan routes played a similarly important role).

Russia is still willing to bargain with Georgia. It has already negotiated privatization of the major gas pipeline across the country, but the talks yielded no results, as some Georgian government officials and U.S. representatives opposed the idea. Still, there are reasons to believe that the decision was not final. Russia is sending a signal that if it gets the pipeline, the gas price set now will remain stable for a long time. Apparently, there is a chance that at the next talks economic considerations will prevail over Tbilisi's political ambitions. If, however, this does not happen, Russia is likely to raise gas prices once again.

The situation in Ukraine is different. The agreement on joint management of its gas transportation network was reached in 2002, when the parties announced the creation of a Russian-Ukrainian consortium, which was also to involve Germany. But it was not implemented under Kuchma, and was discarded under Yushchenko. It resulted in the shockingly tough stance adopted by Russia, which had been disappointed by usual protracted talks and decided to escalate the situation in order to force Ukraine to change its view on the consortium.

This means that Russia is not trying to settle the score with its geopolitical opponents, but is being very pragmatic (while differentiating between them), in an attempt to support its own economic expansion in former Soviet republics, using all available leverages.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy director general of the Center for Political Technologies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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