EU 'Should Involve Turkey in Energy Talks with Russia'
Turkey and Russia do not have common interests in energy in the long-term, and EU could boost cooperation with Ankara through its nascent Energy Union, a recent report argues.
A policy brief prepared by Dimitar Bechev, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, on relations between Russia and Turkey was presented in Sofia on Monday, in an event co-organized by the European Policy Center and Capital newspaper.
Along with Bechev, former Energy Minister Traycho Traykov and former Bulgarian Ambassador to Russia Iliyan Vasilev also took part in a discussion which largely focused on the so-called “Turkish Stream” pipeline (an alternative to South Stream which Moscow abandoned in December), though the report [available here] also touches much broader issues.
While pointing to the substantial bilateral exchange in energy and increasing interaction in the construction sector, Bechev added that the two countries' leaders, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, have "mutual respect and see on the other side a person whom they can trust." In his words, however, it would be a mistake to think this relation begins and ends with Putin and Erdogan.
He gave examples of cautious Russian policies on Turkey, citing the country's neutral position in 2008 during the developments in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, despite the close friendship between Ankara and Tbilisi.
But he also reminded that Turkey is a big energy consumer and aims to diversify gas supply, also adding other sources and turning into a gas distribution center. What is more, Turkey is seeking to push down the share of gas in its energy mix in order to become more independent and to have a freer hand in relations with Russia.
Bechev reiterated the report's conclusion that Turkey, alongside the Western Balkans, should be brought into the process of the Energy Union's action against Gazprom's long-term contacts, if the former is granted powers to negotiate.
The author believes bilateral relations are marked by "opportunism", since Turkey's path is to avoid confrontation. At the same time "Turkey is in a stronger position, because Russia needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Russia," he concluded.
EU Success 'Lies in Smaller Projects'
Iliyan Vasilev, a former Bulgarian Ambassador to the EU, was also skeptical of the likelihood for Ankara and Moscow to have a long-haul alliance.
He also pointed to the diverging interests of both countries in the energy sector:
"Blue Stream had the main idea to stop alternative supplies via Turkey by inundating it with Russian gas to the extent that Turkey needn't use any other gas." This is, in his opinion, also the driving force behind "Turkish Stream": "Putin has very weak cards in his hand... His entire idea is to stop again alternative supplies to Turkey. The big problem with Russia is that if Putin puts emphasis on geopolitical dividends, Turkey always relies on sound economic and financial logic."
"Turkey, on the other hand, is facing the problem that nobody could be a gas hub more than their transit capacity allows," he said.
The former ambassador predicted that Europe's position will shift the balance toward retaining the gas transit corridors via Ukraine, contrary to Moscow's plans that the completion of "Turkish Stream" should redirect gas flow to Europe: "You will see that the European Energy Union will very soon react with a more logical solution to buy gas at the Ukrainian border and to use gas depots in Ukraine. Because whatever politicians decide, gas flows where there is consumption."
The future development of the Ukraine crisis, however, could have a huge impact on the situation, Vasilev emphasized. On the one hand, as a hypothetical escalation and situations like the Kharkiv explosion [on Sunday] change the outlook, favoring the idea to abandon the Ukrainian gas transit system.
On the other hand, he noted that in January "Ukraine received more gas from the West than from Russia: reverse gas flow emerged in the region." He cited this as an example showing Europe does not need large-scale projects, given that many of the important stakeholders pull out of key energy ventures, while Russia finds it more and more difficult to provide guarantees. Turkey at the same time is a "country that will be less and less ready to carry out such projects without taking economic dimensions into account."
He also surprised the guests and participants in the discussion with a forecast that Bulgaria will diversify gas supplies in just two years.
Turkey 'Cautious to Avoid Making Russia Angry'
Pragmatism in Russian-Turkish relations is more clearly manifest on behalf of Turkey, former Economy and Energy Minister Traycho Traykov, who took the portfolio in GERB's previous cabinet. For Turkey there is "still a dominating line: whatever it does, not to make Russia angry in a too obvious way", he argued, also citing Turkey's cautious stance on Georgia in 2008 and also the onset of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. Gas interconnections with Bulgaria are also an example in his opinion, since Turkey has never refused to take part, but has occasionally "declared it will not put its relations with Russia into jeopardy".
According to Traykov's forecast, the country will be able to avail itself of all doors open in front of it without closing those behind, despite the fact that many experts question the country's right to both make use of preferential regimes with the EU and take opposite foreign policy stances.
Russia, for its part, has reacted "spontaneously" as regards the transformation of South Stream into "Turkish Stream," Traykov added. In his words, the move was a sign that Moscow "also has other scenarios apart from the EU and will make use of this." The ex-minister, however, put the project into question: "It seems absurd to tell a customer who every day comes to your shop: "Tomorrow I am opening a shop in the city nearby, you should go there," when the customer has the opportunity to simply change you as a supplier."
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