RIGA - After weeks of relative calm, a new wave of criticism over last year's $5 billion gas pipeline deal between Russia and Germany has erupted as top European Union officials begin to rethink its strategic energy partnership with Russia. Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski even went so far as to call the gas pipeline, agreed upon last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, as a new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
"Last yearâ€¦the German president declared that never again would Germany make deals over Poland's head. He received a loud cheer and a standing ovation," Sikorski was quoted as saying. "Ten days later, his chancellor signs a deal without consulting usâ€¦why would our ally and partner do such a thing?"
As the defense minister explained, "In Poland we are particularly sensitive to corridors and deals that are over our head. There was the Locarno tradition, there was the Molotov-Ribbentrop tradition. That was the 20th century. We don't want a repeat of that."
Though the analogy was not new, the fact that it came from such a high-ranking official at a time of growing tension in EU-Russian relations gave it an added degree of potency. The European Commission moved to defuse the tension on May 2, with a spokesman saying, "The language employed was certainly neither helpful nor proportionate to the problem."
Still, Sikorski received support from European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, a Latvian. "We should never have had to face this situation, where one partner country decided on a project that is unacceptable to others, without even discussing it," Piebalgs was quoted as saying.
Germany, according to critics such as Piebalgs and Sikorski, ignored the interests of its EU partners when signing the project with Russia and thereby dealt a blow to European unity of energy, arguably the most pressing topic facing the union. As Sikorski said, "Yes, we want to buy the energy, but we don't want monopolies. We don't want blackmail. We need European solidarity on this issue."
He added, "Germany is an important partner for us. We are astonished that Germany would do something which doesn't benefit consumers and the geopolitical objective of which is to be able to cut off Belarus and Poland without cutting off Germany."
In Lithuania, Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said that, while Sikorski's metaphor "was too strong," it reflected the "essence of the problem."
In his words, "The decision, which excludes the Baltic region countries, is not the best solution. Both Russia and Germany should have held consultations with the Baltic states and Poland. On the other hand, the European Union still does not have a single energy policy with individual countries trying to act on their own, and Russia is taking advantage of that."
The 1,200-kilometer North European Gas Pipeline will stretch from Russia, across the bottom of the Gulf of Finland, into the Baltic Sea and end in Germany. Construction of the land-based section has already begun.
Sikorski's gambit renewed the debate about European energy security, which is particularly sensitive in the Baltics and Poland. Nevertheless, the saber-rattling between the European Union and Russia have escalated in the past month. Putin recently complained about restrictions on Russian energy companies investing in European companies, and this week EU officials said they would keep in mind the monopolistic position of Russia's Gazprom, the largest producer of natural gas in the world.
As Putin said, "When [foreign companies] come to us, it's investment and globalization, but when we plan to go somewhere, it's what? It's the expansion of Russian companies."
In a letter to Russian Energy Minister Victor Khristenko, Commissioner Piebalgs and Austrian Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein wrote, "The rules applied to Gazprom will be no different to those applied to other companies, notably under the competition rules of the EU Treaty, and they will be applied in exactly the same manner."
EU officials are hoping to secure a holistic energy deal from Russia at a time when the country, apparently tired of European bickering, has been shopping more intensively on Asian market. But with the two sides trading warnings and veiled threats, the issue of energy supplies and security appeared to overtake all other aspects of bilateral cooperation.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that Russia should open its energy market if it expects to win further access to European markets. "If we put an open, competitive European market at the disposal of Russia then we expect reciprocity. An open, competitive market for us. But here lies the difference between us," he said.
Barroso went so far as to say that Brussels would cooperate with Washington on the issue and even put it on the agenda of the upcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg. "The EU and U.S.A. must send a clear mutual signal on the need to change the paradigm in energy matters. I will give such a message at the next EU-U.S. summit in June and also at the St. Petersburg summit in July," said Barroso.
"As constructive partners we should clearly declare our discomfort at the developments in Russia," he added.
Gazprom currently provides about 30 percent of gas supplies for France, Germany and Italy, and some 90 percent to new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia also supplies about one-fourth of Europe's crude oil.
Russia's move to decrease energy deliveries to Ukraine in January was perceived as a political decision and rang alarm bells in Europe. In their letter, Piebalgs and Bartenstein wrote that Russia and Gazprom were reliable suppliers of natural gas to the EU.
"The EU and Russia are, and must remain, in a position of mutually beneficial interdependence," the commission said.
The commission has called upon Russia to sign the Energy Charter Treaty and Transit Protocol that would help regulate any future disputes over gas deliveries.
In Latvia, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told lawmakers that Finland, where she was last week on an official visit, intends to make energy one of the priorities during its term as head of the EU presidency.
"There is a concern that energy issues may undermine international arrangements because countries no longer pay so much attention to common interests," said the Latvian president.
Presidential spokeswoman Aiva Rozenberga told the Baltic News Service that the president had called for a common EU position on energy matters at the talks with lawmakers. Vike-Freiberga noted recent positive developments towards the EU producing a common opinion on the matter.
Speaking to Lithuania's Parliament on the second anniversary of EU membership, outgoing Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis said, "Lithuania's de facto presence in the embrace of Russia's energy resources, the increase in Europe's overall dependence on Russia's energy resources, Russia's continuing aggressive energy policy with regard to the European Union, forces us to search for new solutions. Lithuania should be active in this dimension because it determines Lithuanian and EU energy safety and the environment we will live in."
He added, "I am not saying we should abandon dialogue with Russia, but the dialogue should be based on common values and reciprocity, which I think we are lacking. This is proven in the recent Russian statements."