By Peter Schutz
The fact that the pipeline through which all of Slovakia's gas from Russia flows is called "Družba" ('friendship') is not only a leftover from the past, it is a very real reflection of how both coalition and opposition politicians continue to look at crucial economic issues like energy security 17 years after the 1989 revolution.
The prognosis of market experts that the standoff between Russia and Belarus in early January would not escalate into a crisis was confirmed on January 10 when Russia turned the taps back on after three days. However, given that Slovakia is almost 100 percent dependent on Russian imports, statements such as "we need to talk about diversification" or "we need to script an energy policy for the next 20-30 years" (and so on) are merely a reflection of what has not been done in past years.
The diversification of energy sources was one of the main priorities of the Dzurinda-led opposition from 1994-1998, but once this opposition became the first Dzurinda government in 1998, not another word was heard or a hint of action seen. Now, 10 years later, when Putin and Lukashenko staged a showdown, one of the main Slovak actors had the gall to say "this is not so serious a problem as to demand an acute solution". Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek even used the occasion for a bit of propaganda, claiming that HE had convinced the Slovnaft refinery not to raise gas prices. How nice of him. Gas would have gone up the moment the crisis looked like lasting more than a week.
Calm, apathy and inaction were the hallmarks of the Comecon mentality, where a belief in the stability and permanence of oil supplies encouraged confidence that the Soviet Union would swallow every piece of crap that was made in Czechoslovakia, and in gratitude would feed us gas and oil than was 10 times cheaper than world prices.
But times have changed dramatically, the empire is no more, and while energy business (extortion) remains the key tool of Russian power politics, the Kremlin has allowed cheap energy contracts to continue only with its nearest and dearest, not with NATO and EU candidates. And as the Ukraine crisis last year and the Belarus one this year showed, even these last cheap contracts are being torn up, and given that transit lines lead through these countries to the West, we are caught up in every energy dispute that occurs.
The problem is not so much the recent conflict as the likelihood that such conflicts will become a regular occurrence due to the nature of the region, relationships within it, and the type of politicians who are and will continue to be in power. The Belarussian dictatorship and the semi-autocratic Russian regime of Vladimir Putin are not civilized democracies, a fact that is reflected in the value they assign to agreements and business contracts, and in that if push comes to shove, the valid interests of third parties have no weight. Warnings of the type that came recently from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EC President José Manuel Barroso may be effective in 2007, but will be risible in five or ten years after Russia starts to "diversify" its energy exports according to its liking, such as towards China, for which it already has a business plan.
The diversification of energy sources and flows is certainly a more demanding challenge than politicians are used to, but anyone in Europe who did not see this coming and did not prepare for it is not a statesman or a politician but an irresponsible fool.
Sme, January 11
15. Jan 2007 at 0:00