Nord Stream exposes Europe's 'politics as usual'

  • 2009-12-02
  • Staff and wire reports

TALLINN - The first stage of constructing the controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline has begun with attempts to detonate a WWII naval mine sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland, reports news agency LETA. The mine, however, failed to go off.
“There are two possible reasons for this: either the detonation charges set in place by a remote-controlled robot failed to go off, or they did go off but failed to ignite the explosive agent inside the mine,” said Nord Stream Senior Project Engineer and Pipe Laying Specialist Simon Bonnell.

Once built, the project will comprise two parallel pipelines carrying Siberian gas to Germany along a route under the Baltic sea. The blasting area is just south of Helsinki. The start of the mine clearance operation has already been postponed several times because of bad weather. With all the preparatory work involved, the blasting of each mine, about 50 in total, takes between one and two working days.

The business daily The Wall Street Journal has called the Nord Stream project the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pipeline.’
“Next spring the first pipeline segments will likely be dropped to the sea floor in a line that will wind through Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish and German waters - conspicuously avoiding the Baltic states and Poland. This is because the Nord Stream project is part of an exclusionary agreement between Moscow and Berlin - nicknamed in circumvented Warsaw the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’.”

Energy analysts have previously said that “It would have been much cheaper to build an overland pipeline through Eastern Europe, but the purpose of Nord Stream, from the beginning, was to bypass countries Moscow still considers to be part of its sphere of influence.” They say that “Russia’s geopolitical message here is clear: it doesn’t trust the new EU member states as transit countries, or even as energy consumers, and is willing to incur enormous costs to bypass them. The other message, or implied threat, is that Nord Stream will allow the Kremlin to cut off gas deliveries to Eastern Europe through current pipelines without reducing energy supplies to Germany.”

The current European Commission Energy Commissioner, Latvian Andris Piebalgs, says he is satisfied that his successor in the next Commission will be Germany’s commissioner candidate Guenter Oettinger. Piebalgs said that a representative from one of the larger European countries should take the energy commissioner post, because he would have “more weight” in the creation of a common EU energy policy. He dismisses concerns that the work of the German commissioner could reflect Berlin’s special energy relations with Russia, saying “I do not see any danger in this area.”
Nonetheless, many are skeptical. This also poses the question “What sort of message does Germany, a fellow EU member, intend to send to its neighbors?”

The Nord Stream project was championed by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who now serves as one of the company’s executives. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has lobbied successfully for EU endorsement of the project even though the pipeline consortium is registered in Switzerland and controlled by Russia’s Gazprom. Of the many companies involved in the pipeline’s construction, not one is from the Baltics, Central or Eastern Europe.

Germany’s recent election results produced a glimmer of hope among the countries on Russia’s periphery. With the traditionally pro-Moscow Social Democratic Party out of the governing coalition, it was thought that German Chancellor Merkel perhaps would seek to change the terms of the Nord Stream agreement and push Russia to alter the route so that the pipeline would cross the territories of Eastern EU members. It was believed she might lobby Moscow to also include East European companies in the Nord Stream consortium.

At least, it was hoped, Berlin would throw its weight behind the Nabucco pipeline, which seeks to improve Central and Eastern Europe’s energy security with the help of Caspian and Middle Eastern gas. After all, Germany’s RWE is part of the Nabucco consortium and Schroeder’s pro-EU former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, is now a lobbyist for the project.
The Nordic countries had delayed the project’s approval by raising environmental concerns, which most interpreted as unease about the pipeline’s geopolitical implications. Swedish Social Democrats Urban Ahlin and Anders Ygeman said that “The pipeline is not in Sweden’s interests, especially considering the project’s far-reaching consequences on the environment,” reports Ahlin, who serves as the Social Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesperson, and Ygeman, who chairs the Riksdag’s environmental committee, said approval of the project amounts to “selling out Swedish environmental interests to the benefit of Russian gas.”

Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren in a government press release claimed that “The government has set high demands to ensure that the sensitive environment in the Baltic sea is not threatened. [Nord Stream] has been required to provide a series of supplementary examinations and has satisfied each stage of the deliberation process.” He added that, after an exhaustive process of consultation with states bordering the Baltic sea and within Swedish authorities, the government is satisfied that demands have been met for project approval.

Finland and Sweden were the last to succumb and gave their approval to the project on Nov. 5.
“The very realistic prospect that construction on Moscow’s pet project might begin early next year is a symbolic blow to those seeking to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas. Most of all, it is a blow to any semblance of EU unity on energy security. Russia’s neighbors, both within and without the EU, are already reeling from a sense of Euro-Atlantic abandonment following Washington’s ‘reset’ policy toward Russia and the EU’s lackluster outreach to its Eastern neighbors,” continues the WSJ.

The 1,220 km long pipeline will connect Russia’s Vyborg and Germany’s Greifswald. The two main companies behind the project are Russia’s energy giant Gazprom and German companies E. On Ruhrgas and BASF-Wintershall. Europe gets about one quarter of its gas from Russia.
Construction of the first of two parallel pipelines is planned to be started in the first half of 2010; the first gas supplies via the pipeline to Europe could start in autumn 2011. The project is planned to be completed by 2012.