VISEGRAD: Russian pipeline drives through the heart of Europe

VISEGRAD: Russian pipeline drives through the heart of Europe
By Tim Gosling December 2, 2015

If there's one game Russia is good at, it's divide and conquer. Russia is meant to be internationally "isolated", but its ability to exploit splits within Central and Eastern Europe and the wider EU bloc remains unmatched, with the latest its plan to double the capacity of the Nord Stream gas pipeline that runs beneath the Baltic Sea to Germany.

On December 2, the Czech government reportedly decided it will not join other CEE states in signing letters protesting the project to raise the pipeline's capacity to 110bn cubic metres per year (cm/y), which has been agreed between Gazprom and German, Austrian and British energy companies. The issue gestated in Prague for close to a week, with local media reporting that many senior figures in the coalition government had pushed to join the protest in the interests of maintaining unity within the "Visegrad Four" (V4) countries of Central Europe.

Poland and Slovakia – which risks losing billions in revenue from transiting Russian gas exports to Europe arriving via Ukraine if Nord Stream 2 goes ahead – led the effort to press Brussels to rule against the pipeline expansion. The Energy Union project seeks to reduce the EU's dependence on Russian energy supplies, while the letters called for a probe of how closely Nord Stream 2 follows EU legislation on market liberalization.

“Nord Stream 2 would be, above all, detrimental in geopolitical terms… for the purpose of exerting more political pressure and applying blackmail on the EU, its eastern member states and its eastern neighbors,” said Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

Hungary signed up as well, despite having in the past shown itself as perhaps Moscow's keenest supporter in the EU. This is because Hungary would have one less gas supply option if Russia succeeds in bypassing Ukraine and sending the gas through Nord Stream instead. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania were also reported to have signed up to the protest.

However, switching more deliveries north would actually benefit the Czech Republic, which is directly linked to the German gas network. Prague could then collect transit fees to ship Russian supplies to the south and east, as well as building its regional clout. Prague also tends to align itself with Berlin, where Nord Stream 2 has garnered strong support. Bulgaria, which previously fought for a starring role in the now defunct South Stream project, is also reported to have refused to support the complaint.

Still, many senior officials in the Czech coalition government apparently pushed to join the protest. The cabinet office insisted the country should support its Visegrad partners, according to

Yet that met with resistance, particularly from Trade and Industry Minister Jan Mladek. Regarded as pro-Russian – perhaps due to his wife's nationality – Mladek says Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project, and would arrive in Germany with no political overtones. It was Mladek who was required to sign the stronger of the two letters addressed to Maros Sefcovic, the Slovak European commissioner in charge of the Energy Union project.

Fish in a barrel

The refusal, reported by Euractiv's Adela Denkova on Twitter, comes just a day ahead of the arrival in Prague of regional prime ministers for a V4 summit. While the meeting is ostensibly to centre on a visit by the prime minister of South Korea, it's likely Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka will face a grilling from his guests.

It was only in September that the Czechs denounced Poland for going against the V4 by voting in favour of the EU's migrant quotas. Interior Minister Milan Chovanec dramatically announced the death of the V4 on Twitter. "Common sense lost today,” he wrote. "Poland took a break. I am afraid that today it's only V3."

Sobotka may well have those words thrown back at him as his peers arrive. However, the pressures crowding in on the EU and Visegrad illustrate that calls for unity are little more than self-interested cynicism, and it's precisely that weakness Russia continues to exploit skillfully. At the same time, it’s a tactic that is tantamount to shooting fish in a barrel. The dysfunction at the heart of the EU project in its current form is being highlighted by the series of recent crises.

In CEE, the problems are magnified, both by Russian mischief and provincial politics. The Baltics and Poland demand unity in their hawkish stance on the Ukraine crisis and Russia, but, pushed by populism, turned their noses up when Brussels and Berlin called for all member states to pitch in on accepting migrants.

Slovakia and Hungary have led the protests against migrant quotas, and also played obstructive roles regarding Europe's response to the Ukraine crisis, not to mention previous efforts to reduce dependency on Russian energy. However, suggestions from the UK that it wants its benefits system to be able to discriminate between EU citizens, or from other Western European countries that they might suspend the Schengen borderless zone, have been met with howls of fury in the east.

While the fractures across the EU are easy for Russia to exploit, the key is the constant pressure it applies. The European bloc is so busy fire fighting that it appears oblivious to the weakness of Moscow's position. 

The push by state-controlled Gazprom to bypass Ukraine in sending its gas to Europe is driven not just by a desire to turn the screw on cash-strapped Kyiv, but also by a new strategy to increase its market share in Europe. While it trumpeted last year's gas deals with China, Europe remains Russia's largest, and most profitable, market by far.

However, it has run out of options in what is by its very nature a long drawn-out geopolitical game, regardless of the claims about its purely commercial nature from the Czech trade and industry minister. Objections from the EU scuppered Russia's South Stream project to carry 63bn cm/y into southern Europe; the crisis in Russia's relations with Turkey has essentially killed the alternative Turkish Stream. Nord Stream 2 is vital for Russia.