The Gas Dispute as It Is Seen in Russia

Thursday, 15. January 2009     0 comment(s)
Vadim Kononenko
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

The Russian television industry was doing its regular job this New Year’s eve filling the TV screens with pop stars and their entourage. Although I was busy hosting a family party and thus could not follow the shows very attentively, I noticed that only one of the four national channels put a news headline in the bottom of the screen saying that the agreement between Gasprom and Naftogaz was not reached and the Russian gas company decided to cut its gas supplies to Ukraine as of the 1st of January. I remember that one guest at our party said: “who cares about the gas dispute, let’s carry on celebrating while we can”.

Now with the festive season officially over, the mood of the day in Russia seems to be different. The gas crisis is being intensively discussed in the media, particularly in the printed media. Experts look at Gasprom much more critically than during the gas disputes with Ukraine of the previous years. It is not seen as yet another dispute between the two countries but rather a beginning of a different and more complex game. Two lines of opinion could be discerned in the debate. According to one line Gasprom actions brought too much politics into the energy business, thus exposing the role of the intermediaries and various murky deals and personalities, which was not necessary. Most importantly, the image of Russia as a reliable energy supplier and thus a stable partner for the EU has received a dent, once again, and prompted the EU to seek alternatives for dependency on Russia’s gas. Furthermore, the trust in other energy projects between Russia and Europe is withering away like gas into thin air, or as my Finnish friend eloquently puts it: “hävisi kuin pieru Saharaan”.

The second line of the debate points out the negative geopolitical consequences of this dispute. Ironically, the crisis brought Brussels and Ukraine closer even though Ukraine is seen as a troublesome partner for the EU. The stakes for non-engagement with Ukraine and other neighbours become higher every time Russia shows its assertive posture. It makes the EU, and increasingly the US, more involved in the region that Russia considers to be of strategic importance, while at the same driving the neighbours away from Russia and making Moscow look in the eyes of the West like a non-compromising, zero-sum player. Ultimately, it raises the question whether the excessive use of power, political, military or economic, which the Kremlin employs towards the neighbouring countries really serves the purpose of strengthening Russia’s position and interests in the world.

The ongoing discussion on the gas crisis shows that the political debate in Russia is on the rise. There are critical voices and opinions that assess the situation independently of Gasprom or the Kremlin. Another question is whether policymakers are prepared to listen. In any case, the concerts and festive programs which were made for the New Year’s eve were on air again, this time for the old-style new year on the 13th of January. However one can not repeat them endlessly.



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