Crisis? What crisis?

THOUGH no Slovak natural gas consumer would ever have smelled problems coming from their gas taps had the media not launched a series of reports on complications in Russian gas supplies for Slovakia, the recent temporary gas shortage has reopened the ever-present question of Slovakia's energy dependence on Russia.

THOUGH no Slovak natural gas consumer would ever have smelled problems coming from their gas taps had the media not launched a series of reports on complications in Russian gas supplies for Slovakia, the recent temporary gas shortage has reopened the ever-present question of Slovakia's energy dependence on Russia.

Supplies of Russian natural gas to Slovakia fell by 30 percent on January 2, but returned to normal levels the next day.

The Economy Ministry claims that Russian-Slovak relations have rarely been this good, but let's not forget that this most recent temporary shortage was not Slovakia's first energy complication from the East.

In October, major Slovak and Hungarian oil refineries Slovnaft and MOL were alarmed by press reports that Russia was threatening to turn off its oil taps to several Central European countries and export 40 percent less oil to Slovakia than it was contractually obliged.

The country's then acting Economy Minister, Ivan Mikloš, had to personally intervene to ask the Russian side to keep to the terms of its agreement.

European customers dependent on Russian oil also experienced several disruptions in the mid-90s that the Slovak concluded had been little more than strong-arm tactics meant to force clients to purchase through third-party firms believed to have close ties to the Kremlin.

The oil stain has receded from Slovak-Russian relations since mid-October last year, when the Russians promised to supply as much oil as had been agreed in existing treaties. Still, past complications have transmitted a clear message: Slovakia must take a closer look at its energy policies.

While the Economy Ministry acknowledges that recent developments on world energy markets imply the need to change the country's energy policies, the ministry does not regard it as a pressing issue, even though analysts are starting to suggest that Russia is exchanging weapons for oil and gas taps in its fight for influence in the region.

Slovakia is currently revising a 1999 energy policy document, but the first draft revision, which recommended a considerable shift towards the use of nuclear energy, was rejected.

The Economy Ministry, however, continues to characterize events in a positive light, maintaining that Slovakia has well-balanced energy sources, and that the construction of nuclear power plants and further development and investment in alternative energy sources should calm any fears that the country is too vulnerable.

But the fact remains that Russia wields its gas and oil taps as a reminder of its importance. Any interruption of gas or oil in Slovakia would paralyze entire companies, most importantly the chemical industry, as well as whole towns and villages.

Therefore, Slovakia, just as other post-Communist countries, must keeps updating its approach to Russia, which remains one of the most paradoxical giants in world politics.

These nations had recently been creeping back to the Russian market, which, admittedly, has considerable potential.

The European Union did not show any major distress over the temporary natural gas crisis. On January 3, Germany called on Russia and Ukraine to iron out their differences, but, like other EU countries, refused to verbally take sides.

Meanwhile, Austria, the country that now holds the rotating EU presidency, stated that although there was no serious crisis at hand, the EU would nonetheless seek to trim its energy dependence on Russia. This ambition, however, remains a Herculean task.

For example, Slovakia's plans to become less dependent through nuclear energy might not appeal to Austria, which wouldn't appreciate having more nuclear plants in its neighbourhood. Russia, keenly aware that it needs the European market at least as much as Europe needs Russian resources, is thus taking pains to assure its European partners that no gas or oil supply threat is hovering over them.

This is happening despite tense situations, such as in November 2004, when former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko soured Slovak-Russian relations by declaring that Slovakia should buy back its 49-percent stake in the Slovak oil distribution company Transpetrol from Russian oil colossus Yukos, which bought the stake in 2002, and now happens to be under the control of the Russian government.

Yukos valued the 49-percent stake as an access route to western and southern European markets, as well as a method of initiating a pipeline sea route to North America.

The Slovak pipeline network, consisting of two routes - the Druzhba and Adria pipelines - also enjoys an advantageous position in the European crude petroleum market and perhaps secures a better energy position for Slovakia than its neighbours.

In December 2005, though, Slovakia gave up its position and announced it would not attempt to repurchase the shares, a move the Economy Ministry claimed was meant to improve ties with Russia.

And after Economy Minister Jirko Malchárek's most recent trip to Russia, the ministry again claimed that official Slovak-Russian relations have significantly improved. Slovakia can only hope that these improvements will at least provide the country with some protection and relief from too frequent shortages of gas or oil supplies.

By Beata Balogová

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