The ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas exports is likely to end up spurring efforts to establish alternate, more reliable export routes to serve the European Union, experts and officials predict.
EU officials worked feverishly to help resolve dispute after gas exports stopped flowing through Ukraine, thus creating shortages in many European states. EU officials have offered to send monitors to Ukraine to ensure the smooth westward flow of Russian energy supplies. Officials in both Moscow and Kyiv have expressed satisfaction with such an arrangement, and the head of the Russian state-run conglomerate Gazprom, Alexei Miller, and the chief of Ukraine's Naftogaz, Oleh Dubnya, were scheduled to meet in Brussels on January 8 to work out the technical details of such an arrangement. The Kremlin has sent signals that it will reopen its export spigot as soon as EU monitors are in place, EU representatives have said.
Russia cut exports via Ukraine after the Kremlin accused Kyiv of improperly siphoning gas and not paying for it. Ukrainian officials deny the allegation.
Regardless of who's telling the truth, no gas was reaching Europe on January 7, plunging some EU states into a full-blown crisis. One of the hardest-suffering EU states is Bulgaria, which is wholly dependent on Russian gas exports. Bulgaria's own gas reserves are able to cover just a third of the country's normal daily consumption of 12 million cubic meters. Officials in Sofia were thus forced to unveil a rationing plan, while exploring other energy options, such as increasing imports of oil.
Some European countries have cushioned the blow delivered by the Russian-Ukraine dispute by coming up with alternate sources. Turkey, for example, reported January 6 that the deliveries it received from Ukraine had completely dried up. But Ankara announced that it could compensate by upping the quantity of gas delivered from Russia via the Blue Stream pipeline. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Bulgarian government expressed shock on January 6 over the abrupt cutoff of Russian supplies. "There was no warning to Bulgaria from anyone about stopping the gas supply," the Bulgarian government's official website [www.government.bg] quoted Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev as saying.
Stanishev engaged in a flurry of telephone diplomacy -- discussing his country's plight with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, Gazprom CEO Miller and Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemirya. Those talks failed to produce any clarity as to the cause of the gas cutoff, or a possible solution to Bulgaria's sudden energy crisis.
Putin told Stanishev that Russia fully complies with its commitments and arrangements to Bulgaria and other European countries on gas supplies and that the crisis was caused by Ukraine. Miller merely echoed Putin's version of events in a subsequent conversation with Stanishev. The Ukrainian official, Nemirya, offered a starkly different version of events, telling the Bulgarian prime minister that Russia had completely suspended its gas exports via Ukraine.
"It is unacceptable that our country has become a victim to a trade conflict ? in which she is not a party," Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivaylo Kalfin told the government web site.
While Bulgaria stands to suffer over the short-term, the country could reap a sizable long-term gain. That's because many experts believe this latest gas-export disruption will finally propel EU states and Russia to move decisively in setting up alternate export routes that bypass Ukraine. Two such routes -- Nabucco and South Stream -- have been much discussed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bulgaria is a key player in both projects, so Sofia would benefit, even if only one of the pipelines get built. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
South Stream, a Russia-backed project, is widely seen as in the best present position to move forward. Meanwhile, questions about construction costs and reliability of natural gas supplies have dampened enthusiasm for Nabucco, a route to Europe that would originate in the Caspian Basin and circumvent Russian territory.
Nabucco advocates have seized on the Russian-Ukrainian spat to promote the project, pointing out that their proposed route would not directly involve either Russia or Ukraine. "The diversification of sources and pipeline routes is crucial. Therefore, Nabucco is ever more important, considering the current situation," the Bulgarian news website Dnevnik.bg quoted Rainhard Mitschek, who heads the Nabucco project, as saying.
Russia's paramount leader, Vladimir Putin, is expected to travel to Germany on January 16. Although no formal itinerary has been announced, it would seem likely that alternate energy export routes would likely be high on the agenda for potential talks between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Svetla Marinova is a freelance reporter who specializes in Black Sea affairs.