The press is unanimous in describing the appointment of former German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder as head of the consortium for building the North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) as manifestation of corruption. "The suspicions of Poles in regard of the Shroeder-Putin pact seem to have been proved correct. A number of German MPs have plainly stated that it is not ruled out that the Kremlin has awarded Shroeder with a sinecure for his advocacy of the gas pipeline construction. Gazprom keeps quiet about his salary but his post-political career will obviously be more lucrative than when he headed the government of a country with Europe's biggest economy. (Postimees, December 17.) "Ribbentrop had one advantage over Shroeder - he was motivated by ideology. Shroeder has simply sold himself." (SL Ohtuleht, December 20.)
Some publications stress the need to minimize the energy risks for Estonia. "The gas pipeline will be built in any event. Together with other countries, we should try to have a branch of the pipeline built towards our coast, or receive some other benefits. In this we can reduce the risks for our energy security, although we won't be able to prevent possible price pressure from Russia. But it would be shortsighted to get into a deadlock. We should get everything we can from the gas pipeline." (SL Ohtuleht, December 16.)
The press is unanimous in describing the offer to Don Evans, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and George Bush's friend, to head Rosneft as an attempt to improve the image of the organization which bought Yukos shares. "Evans as head of Rosneft seems to be largely a political move... The impression is that Putin puts his people in strategic positions. Moreover, they are all trump cards: there is no way the West can overtly find fault with them and accuse them of being undemocratic. This does not mean that they will be loyal all the way. But in protecting energy (which means, government) interests of Russia these Kings and Aces will easily quell any protests. They know the Western establishment from within, and are well aware of its weak spots, which they can press on if the Kremlin gives them a call." (Biznes & Baltiya, December 14.)
The Latvian press is closely following the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations on gas tariffs. It qualifies this attack on Kiev as Moscow's desire to take revenge for the failure of pro-Russian forces at last year's elections. "Experts are convinced that a dramatic increase in gas prices contrary to the Russian-Ukrainian agreement is a political attack against the new democratic leaders of Ukraine. The Kremlin wants to settle the score for its last year's setback during the Orange Revolution, when it tried to influence the Ukrainian voters on the eve of the parliamentary elections in March." (Diena, December 16.)
The media are heavily criticizing Schroeder's new position as a bribe for the NEGP contract with Russia, which discredits the entire Western world. "Because of this spit, Germany is already compared to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and some other countries with a 'peculiar' democracy, and the Germans can now add the word 'otkat' (kick back) to their vocabulary... The Russian press is now mocking Europe, noting spitefully that Putin has proved that money is all-powerful: one can even buy the leader of one of the world's most powerful states as if he were a Duma deputy. It wasn't even that expensive." (Verslo zinios, December 14.)
"The Gazprom-directed consortium will pay Shroeder a million euros a year for his efforts to push through the Russian-German direct gas pipeline, bypassing the Baltic nations and Poland... It appeared that the biggest European friends are also the biggest bribe-takers. But there is nothing new about this: in Russia big-time politicians and big business have been involved in bribery for a long time. They've spotted a soul-mate and invited him to join Gazprom." (Veidas, December 17.)
The Russian-Ukrainian "gas war" is viewed as Russia's continuous geopolitical battle against the West. "If there is anyone left who does not believe the statements made by many analysts that energy resources have become a dangerous weapon in Russia's geopolitical games, the Russian President tried to remove all doubts on this score this week." (Lietuvos ritas, December 17.) "It would be wrong to say that Washington and Brussels have their checkbooks ready to help Kiev pay for Russian gas, which will cost four times more after the New Year, but the EU and U.S. are not going to abandon the Ukrainians to face Moscow alone, either." (Respublika, December 19.)
Without denying the possibility of an economic crisis in the country if the Kremlin's gas prices are accepted, a number of publications see positive moments in this hypothetical choice. By introducing market principles in bilateral relations, Kiev will be able to overcome its economic and political dependence on Moscow, modernize its industry and reduce its energy consumption. The scenario should also speed up the implementation of the government's Euro-Atlantic program. "Without gas, not only will Ukraine's population freeze in winter, but the entire economy will collapse because of its complete dependence on cheap Russian commodities... If Ukraine frees itself of this addiction and finds money to purchase gas at market prices, it will be able to act on the international stage without looking up to its former big brother. For example, this will make it possible for it to join the EU, NATO or WTO with single economic space." (Versii, December 14.)
Some publications write that the true reason of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation is Russia's interest in a positive decision on the gas transportation consortium. "Gas prices themselves are obviously not Russia's main goal in the current gas war. The aim of the campaign is to raise the demand to an absolutely unacceptable level (obviously, no one will pay Russia $230 [per 1,000 cu m] and then generously agree to a compromise somewhere at $100 and demand control over the Ukrainian pipeline in exchange." (RUpor, December 16.)
Pointing to the failure of the Moldovan delegation's talks with Gazprom in Moscow on the new gas price, journalists urge not to succumb to Russia's economic aggression. They believe it is the right time to withdraw from the CIS. "Moldova should show its determination like the Baltic states, which once gave up Moscow's energy subsidies... For lack of Russia's charity, their gas leverage will definitely fail them and, moreover, can boomerang against them." (Flux, December 20.) "One way or another, this is the price we have to pay for independence... Russia is pushing us out of the CIS by creating obstacles for the import of our products, raising gas and electricity tariffs and actually recognizing the election in Transdnestr." (Jurnal de Chisinau, December 16.)
The mass media is positive that cheap Russian gas can be bought only by political resignation to the Kremlin. "Using Ukraine as an example, Russia has shown what will happen to countries that try to be independent... It is clear that the price on which Putin and Kocharyan will agree today will show how much willingness to follow Moscow's instructions the Armenian President has demonstrated." (Iravunk, December 16.)
New tariffs on Russian gas may well become the last straw for Armenia's growing resentment against its strategic partner. The coverage of the developments is becoming increasingly harsh. "We are not talking about Russia's betrayal, of course. The fact is that Russians always betray. That is, they are always guided by their own interests, while we try to convince them that we are their brothers and then get insulted for being betrayed. The reason is that Armenia is Russia's political and economic slave, and the causes for that lie not in Russia, but in Armenia." (Ayb Feh, December 14.)
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity's support of the peace initiative to settle the Georgian-Ossetian conflict is seen as the Kremlin's decision. Experts are reserved in their assessments of Russia's intention and urge their own authorities to be vigilant. "Few people in Georgia have any illusions that this decision was made independently from Russia. In any case, the most important thing is that Kokoity is willing to negotiate." (Sakartvelos Respublika, December 15.) "The ice has been broken, and it was done with the help of Russian diplomacy... But you must not accept that everything is fine, such optimism in regard to Russia is very dangerous. Russia may be concerned with improving its image or pursuing economic interests it has already achieved in other countries." (Rezonansi, December 14.)
The press has published the statement of the Georgian Prime Minister, who said Georgia's support of Russia's WTO accession depended on opening Georgian customs checkpoints at the border with Russia. "Georgia is interested in Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization... [However,] to gain Georgia's support Russia must agree to open legal customs checkpoints at the Russian-Georgian border... Otherwise, Russia, unfortunately, should not count on Georgia's support." (Rezonansi, December 14.)
Bringing natural gas prices for Russian gas supplies to Azerbaijan to European levels starting next year is regarded as an extraordinary measure of political pressure on Baku. "There are political motives behind these Russian moves. In this way, Moscow is seeking to keep pro-Western countries within its sphere of influence. The prices cannot jump four-fold on any market all of a sudden" (Yeni Musavat, December 16).
The Kremlin is blamed for the use of hydrocarbons exports as a means of political pressure not only on the neighboring countries, but also on the Western states, which, in the journalists' opinion, is fraught with tough countermeasures on their part. "By placing the oil and gas complex under near monopoly state control after a series of attacks on "unsuitable" companies (with Yukos being just one example) Russia is turning hydrocarbons supplies into a means of political pressure. After Russian oil and gas began to smack of big politics, the West started seeing cooperation with the Russian giants in this sphere in a different light, and the refusal of Donald Evans [former US Secretary of Commerce] to take a lucrative post in Rosneft (announced by the Wall Street Journal) has left no doubt on that score. This means that, while Russian economists are looking for an answer to the question of when the country will get off the "oil needle," Russia may soon be confronted with an 'oil blockade." (Echo, December 17).
Some publications express open concern over the delay in building the Kazakh space satellite. Journalists doubt the competence of Russian specialists who designed the satellite and express their surprise about the Kazakh authorities' choice. "KazSat, the first Kazakh communication satellite, will not be launched this year. This is already known in the whole "space community," but the official sources are trying to keep it quiet. The Khrunichev state space research and production center has traditionally specialized in building launch vehicles and orbital stations' modules. The center has been and remains a novice in building communication satellites" (Liter.kz, December 15).
The journalists put to doubt the future of Kazakh-Russian space projects, in particular the Baiterek project. "The EU Council of Ministers has made the decision to use only European launching systems for commercial and research missions, not those built in Russia or other countries, even if they are cheaper, ... By the present time, the Soviet reserve of space technologies has been exhausted, and Russia has no more trump cards to attract the United States to cooperation in space. The United States does not need any partners for implementing its space programs; it is self-sufficient in both resources and technologies. Naturally, Europe draws its own conclusions" (Liter.kz, December 15).
One of the news highlights is a conflict around the shares of the Kyrgyz GSM operator Bitel, claimed by Russian companies MTS and Alfa Group. Taking no sides, the press gives mainly chronological coverage of events. "The Kyrgyz authorities have so far sympathized with Alfa, which positions itself as a large Russian investor. But MTS is a company whose shares trade on the New York stock exchange, and it is therefore capable of provoking an international scandal. This does not suit the new authorities. The future of Bitel will depend on whose lobbying power proves the stronger - of Mikhail Fridman, head of Alfa Group, or MTS owner Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a close associate of the Moscow mayor." (Obshchestvenny Reiting, December 16.) "MTS places its stakes on the country's authorities. But Alfa's clear interest in the Kyrgyz asset indicates that MTS will have to sit down at the negotiation table and pay a sizeable kickback" (Gazeta.KG, December 16.)
Opposition Internet media criticize Russia, which for the sake of strategic benefits, in the opinion of the press, has shut its eyes to the human rights situation in the republic. "Moscow's geopolitical interests stand above the domestic political situation in Uzbekistan and its human rights climate (in fact, Russia itself is far from resolving these issues at home) ... Russia needs a reliable ally against the West, and it will seek assistance from those who used to be the West's partner and then went over to the opposite side. This is why Putin is rallying around those who have problems with the democratic community - China, Belarus, and Uzbekistan. Are there any states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that observe human rights? Far from it, it is a club of their worst violators." (Oazis, December 16.)
The media are critical of the potential of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), uniting Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) and its cooperation prospects with NATO, actively sought of late by Moscow. The alliance's ministers ... have come to the conclusion that it is too early to cooperate, because, according to Robert Simmons, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, the organization's activity has not yet been fully formalized ... This means that at present CSTO has low prestige in the world. This organization is backed by Russia's initiatives and finance, because Russia needs dependable allies." (Fergana.ru, December 19.)
The media traditionally highlight the subject of Russia-U.S. confrontation in Central Asia. "When Moscow and Washington begin to openly vie between themselves instead of cooperating (perhaps this is a new form of 'Russian-American partnership'?), a seemingly lazy but actually very cunning Chinese tiger climbs up a tall mountain. And as soon as he decides that both overseas players have run out of steam in 'partner confrontation,' he will simply descend from the mountain and offer Central Asia its strong and reliable 'friendship'." (Azia-plyus, December 17.)
Frictions in Tajik-Russian relations over the problem of labor migrants make journalists look for alternative solutions. It is proposed to reroute some of the migrant flow to the steadily developing Kazakhstan. "Reorientation of part of labor migration to the Kazakhstan market will no doubt reduce the dependence of Tajikistan's stability on this factor and prevent complications in Tajik-Russian relations over the problems created by a high level of labor migration from the republic to Russia." (Biznes i Politika, December 15.)