German Papers Russia's Gas Stranglehold on Europe

The first big issue of 2006 to preoccupy German commentators is the continuing row between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas. Newspapers on Monday focus on the possible political and energy implications for Europe.

The valves of the Bogorechanke gas-holder near Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine on January 1, 2006, after Russia began lowering the pressure of natural gas entering Ukraine"s pipeline system.

The valves of the Bogorechanke gas-holder near Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine on January 1, 2006, after Russia began lowering the pressure of natural gas entering Ukraine"s pipeline system.

With Moscow and Kiev unable to reach a deal on what Ukrainians should pay for Russian natural gas, Russian officials kept true to their word and started shutting down the gas flowing to western Europe via pipelines across Ukraine. Russia says it simply wants market prices for its gas -- roughly $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, compared to the $50 Ukraine currently pays. Kiev, however, believes Moscow wants to punish it for pursuing pro-western policies. That Russia is trying to exert pressure on its former Soviet satellite seems clear to most German commentators. Whereas the state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom wants to more than quadruple the gas price for Ukraine, more Moscow-friendly nations such as neighboring Belarus will continue to pay much lower, heavily-subsidized rates. Apart from what the dispute could mean for Russian-Ukrainian ties, editorials in Germany's newspapers on Monday also express concern about the geo-political implications for the European Union -- which has become heavily dependant on Russia's vast energy resources.

The business daily Handelsblatt doesn't mince words, calling on European nations to use the incident to re-examine the influence Russia can wield by controlling the flow of gas across the continent. "There will be consequences for the EU. Those states such as the Baltic countries which are 100 percent reliant on Russian natural gas, or Poland and the Czech Republic, which are 80 percent reliant, must finally diversify their energy supplies," writes the paper. Handelsblatt also attacks those involved with plans to build a new undersea pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, which would circumvent Moscow's former Soviet satellites. (Nations like Ukraine and Poland traditionally earn transit fees from overland pipes to Europe.) Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder has already been heavily criticized for accepting an advisory position with the pipeline consortium controlled by Gazprom. "Neither advisory board chief Schröder nor BASF and Eon can continue to pretend … the Baltic Sea gas pipeline is simply to secure European supplies. It's part of Putin's imperialistic plans."

The paper goes on to explain that the undersea pipeline could have an offshoot to supply the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. An offshoot to Kaliningrad would give Moscow the chance to supply its own citizens independently, and threaten smaller nations with shutting off the older, overland pipes. "That would be pure politics of blackmail," writes the paper, "and it could be used against those that are helping Russia build today."

The tabloid Bild points out that Moscow is flexing its new power just as it's taking over the chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) club of the world's largest industrialized democracies. The paper calls on Schroder to reconsider his decision to take the pipeline advisory position in light of the growing international gas dispute. "By now former chancellor Schröder really has know whether he wants to serve the Russian president by taking up his job with the state-controlled Russian gas firm." The paper calls Russia's gas "the weapon of the 21st century" -- because states that toe the Kremlin line will continue to receive gas at preferential rates. "A German chancellor behind the Russian gas-cannon? An absurd idea!"

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung comments on the seeming reluctance of the EU to get involved in the gas spat, explaining that Brussels also failed to stick up for the interests of Poland, Finland and the Baltic states in the dispute over the Baltic Sea pipeline. "In both cases, bilateral relations have taken precedence over the interests of the Union," writes the paper. "But in both cases the Union as a whole is affected: first because of the independence of the entire continent from Russia, and second in the exporting of justice and democracy by the EU seminal philosophy of using economics as a vehicle for politics." The FAZ opines that the EU had originally hoped to use this method of buying Russian natural resources to tie Russia closer to Europe, but that perhaps less fortuitous "bonds of another kind" have developed.

The Financial Times Deutschland titles their commentary with the headline "Freedom per Cubic Meter." The commentator argues that "the Kremlin is openly using the country's energy riches as a lever for other goals." Russia, in other words, wants to win back its historic influence over its neighbors. While criticizing Moscow's tactics, the newspaper makes clear that Kiev will have to pay more for its energy supplies if it ever hopes to be free of Russian influence. "Russia's rabid methods…are unacceptable. Ukraine today pays $50 per cubic meter of gas and even then no money exchanges hands -- the costs are credited against transit fees. If Kiev wants to escape the Russian stranglehold, it will at some point have to pay market prices."


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