IN EACH crisis lies a lesson for societies who do not want to continue locked in an endless cycle of re-emerging problems fuelled by the same cause. In the last three weeks Slovakia has not been able to avoid noticing that something is rotten in the state of the pipeline system delivering Russian gas to Slovakia via Ukraine.
Even Slovaks who prior to January 6, the day when Russia cut its trans-Ukrainian gas supplies to Europe, had not given the slightest thought to the fact that their radiators are warm thanks to Russian gas pumped to Slovak pipelines, are now familiar with terms like underground gas storage, restricted gas consumption and energy security.
Slovakia was left without a puff of Russian gas for 13 days, bringing heavy industry to its knees and making Slovak state officials nervous to the point that they seriously considered restarting one of the nuclear reactors at Jaslovské Bohunice - even though it would have meant violating Slovakia’s EU treaty obligations. So quite a crisis. But what have people learned so far?
Ukraine was an unreliable partner during the gas crisis: this is one of the conclusions that President Ivan Gašparovič, Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek and Prime Minister Robert Fico all arrived at.
Fico also laid the blame on Ukraine for the failure of a gas swap plan that he suggested during a trip to Kiev to secure immediate supplies for Slovakia, and that could have kept the country warm and running until Ukraine and Russia sorted out their problems.
Fico proposed that Ukraine start transferring to Slovakia 20 million cubic metres of gas per day from its storage sites in western Ukraine, on condition that Russia pump the same amount into Ukraine’s internal network in the east.
The prime minister said that his Ukrainian counterpart, Yulia Tymoshenko, had no reason not to agree to help Slovakia, but nonetheless rejected the proposal. He even suggested that Ukraine did not care what was happening here, according to the SITA newswire.
The government has often bragged about its supposedly good relationships with Russia. Presumably, some had hoped that in the name of these ‘brotherly’ ties Russia would have not let Slovakia down. But another lesson from the crisis should perhaps be that there are no special relations and there is no ‘Slavic’ nostalgia when it comes to business or power games, be it from Russia or Ukraine.
Fico in early January suggested that the Russian-Ukrainian tug-of-war was a sort of annual ritual between these countries and that things would shortly get back to normal.
“Each year, we witness this ritual when it comes to disputes between Ukraine and Russia over prices,” Fico said as quoted by TASR newswire. “We have no reason to get nervous.”
Well Slovakia now has every reason to get nervous, not least because of its exposed energy dependence on Russia. Fico’s prediction that all of Europe will become more dependent on Russian gas in the future is scant consolation. He comforted voters by assuring them that the European Union would have not allowed Slovakia to run out of gas completely. Try telling that to the Bulgarians who spent the first half of January shivering in their unheated homes for want of gas, with only their EU membership to keep them warm.
The country needs to be nervous about several other things: the way Ukraine and Russia handled the process; the state of its own gas reserves; and the babble of contradicting information about their extent that state officials provided during the crisis. Questions might usefully be asked as well about why Slovakia wasn’t better prepared for such a situation, while Ukraine was perfectly primed. Slovakia maintains an embassy in Ukraine: didn’t the diplomats there get at least a whiff of what was about to come? There are many lessons to be learned from the crisis, and new ways of saving energy to be explored.
One foreign diplomat from an environmentally-aware country who is posted in Bratislava expressed shock at the energy awareness - or rather the lack of it - of his cleaning lady who, after coming in early in the morning, turns on all the radiators and then opens all the windows wide. Many Slovaks would have to hear this story twice to understand why the diplomat was appalled. Perhaps in every second home there are people who prefer to crank the heating up to full bore and then open the windows instead of just setting the heating correctly, or wearing warmer clothes at home.
State officials are right that exploring ways to improve energy security and decrease dependence on external energy sources takes time. But if anything good emerges from the January gas crisis it should be the recognition that that time is now.
A gloomy editorial, however, deserves a gloomy conclusion: 2009 promises many more tough moments for both the government and the population. The number of jobs vacancies has been dropping in Slovakia and the unemployment rate promises to grow. In December, 13,000 people joined Slovakia’s army of unemployed. These are the real challenges that the Fico government now has to face: challenges that can be eased neither by playing the blame game nor by rhetoric, challenges with the potential to corrode the popularity of any government.