MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Boris Kaimakov)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reproached the West for resorting to unscrupulous competition. Speaking to the students of Moscow State University, unfamiliar with political correctness of diplomats, the minister did not try to conceal his concern about "ideologization of international relations." Feeling that the audience did not quite understand the wording, Lavrov switched to the language of economic negotiators. Speaking of the West accusing Russia of gas blackmail, he said, "Here transpires the West's intention to get access to Russian energy without giving anything in return."
It is no secret that Moscow, having realized its aspiration to become an energy super power, is reviewing principles of relations with consumers of its energy. After the January price hike for Ukraine it became clear that the Kremlin was willing to sustain huge political losses in order to uphold its economic claims even to its closest neighbors. A price compromise with Kiev was found fairly fast, due to a large extent to pressure from Western consumers of Russian gas.
Now Moscow is very likely to take up the price issue with Belarus as well. Perhaps Lavrov was not referring to Minsk when he spoke of the need to give something in return, but it is obvious that Gazprom does not agree to the Belarusian stand on pipelines. Minsk wants to restrict the role of the Russian monopolist exporter in managing its pipelines, which obviously irritates Moscow. It is now speaking openly of the need to increase gas prices for Belarus.
The Kremlin's tough energy dialogue with its neighbors has led to a wave of accusations in the West. Russia is said to be blackmailing Europe because of its political ambitions. Apparently, the new economic reality has made some European countries return to the forgotten rhetoric of the Cold War.
Of course, Russia's desire to diversify its energy policy, its tough tone and moves cannot but worry Western analysts. When Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller speaks of new potential gas markets in Asia Pacific and North America, it naturally raises concerns in Europe. Gazprom will soon sign an agreement with China and is seriously looking into LNG supply to the United States. All this is the new reality that requires thinking, not accusations of blackmail. Russia "is able to fully honor its obligations in Europe... and to simultaneously develop cooperation with companies in the Asia-Pacific region," Miller said.
This is not empty rhetoric, which is proved by the great efforts to build the North European Gas Pipeline, which will connect Gazprom's gas network direct to European gas distribution systems. "This is our tangible contribution to ensuring energy security of European nations," Miller maintains.
Given Gazprom's plans to build a new route to Europe via Turkey, through the Blue Stream pipeline, any talk of Russia re-orienting its gas exports eastward seems senseless.
Yet even the fact that increasing gas supply from Russia increases Europe's dependence also causes concerns in the West. These fears first emerged in the early 1980s, when the construction of the Urengoi-Pomary-Uzhgorod gas pipeline was launched. At that time the West formulated the thesis of unacceptability of energy dependence on Moscow. Over 20 years have passed, and Russia has not given a single reason to doubt its reliability as a supplier, not only because it cares about its reputation, but for a number of objective reasons as well. Paradoxically, Russia is as dependent on Western consumers as they are on Russian supplies. Its economic well-being significantly depends on energy exports, so it is hard to imagine that Moscow would resort to political blackmail of Europe.
In fact, any talk of political blackmail is a bluff. No one can explain convincingly how Western democracies can be blackmailed. Response to such a move would be similar to Moscow's response to Western demands that it should follow European democratic standards. Even during the Cold War, trade between the Soviet Union and European consumers progressed regardless of political trends. So we cannot but agree with the Russian foreign minister who told students that "we have much more in common with the West than disagreements."
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