Serbia and South Stream

Serbia and South Stream

By Vladimir Ninković

A number of key factors – including Gazprom’s financial situation, falling gas production and Ukraine’s changed politics – bring into question Russia’s capacity to deliver the energy security benefits promised by its deal with Serbia.


In the last decade we have witnessed growing concerns about the monopoly of Russian gas on the European market; an issues that transcends the boundaries of energy and economic factors to include political and security considerations. This concern is not completely unsupported by the facts – the share of Russian gas in the energy sectors of the Baltic States, Finland and Macedonia is 100%, of Slovakia and Belarus, respectively, 98%, Bulgaria 92%, Serbia 87%, the Czech Republic 77%, Greece 76%, and even Germany with 36% .


Having acquired the Serbian energy sector under very favourable conditions (purchasing the shares of both NIS and YugoRosGas), Gazprom announced that a 400km long stretch of the north-western branch of the ‘South Stream’ pipeline will pass through Serbia. The projected capacity of the branch is 10bcm per year. This arrangement – by binding Serbia to the most powerful, state-owned company of a traditional ally – was presented to the Serbian public as being of significant importance to the state’s energy security.


Similar scenarios happened in neighbouring countries as well. Apart from the unsuccessful purchase of the shares of the Hungarian company MOL by Russia’s Surgutneftegaz, and negotiations between OMV and Gazprom about the use of the  Baumgarten gas terminus near Vienna (by which Austria would become the main point of distribution of Russian gas for the countries of Central and Western Europe), a proposal concerning Croatia’s participation in South Stream entered onto the agenda several months ago. It has been speculated that this move had been made with the aim of spreading the influence of Russian oil and derivatives by securing GazpromNeft’s access to the Adriatic gas pipeline and preventing the EU’s project to establish an LNG terminus at the island of Krk. That way, Russia would obtain JANAF (the Adriatic oil pipeline) – through which Middle-eastern oil is traditionally transported to the Central European countries – after which the oil would start to flow in the opposite direction, that is, from the Druzhba pipeline towards the Adriatic sea.


According to these examples, it could be concluded that the situation is completely clear – Russia  has unlimited sources of energy at its disposal, and its influence in the region and Europe is going from strength-to-strength. Consequently, Serbia’s partnership with  the biggest and most powerful Russian company seemed as a right move and a pledge for the future energy security of the country. However, recent events additionally complicate things.


South Stream, however, has been often called a great Russian bluff and an anti-diversification project of Gazprom aimed against the ‘Nabucco’ pipeline. It has also been speculated that South Stream is a scarecrow for Ukraine, which, until the recent elections, had been fallen from  Moscow’s grace. Nevertheless,  it is increasingly apparent that the construction of this extremely expensive (approximately $25 billion), and technologically demanding project is not that certain as it seemed to be only several months before. The impact on such development of the situation has had a number of economical, as well as geopolitical factors:


1. Gazprom’s worsening financial situation during 2009, due to the decline in gas extraction (584 bcm, down 12% from 2008); exports to “far abroad” countries, outside the former USSR (140bcm, also by 12% down from 2008.); revenues (from €111.5b in 2008 to €72.5b in 2009); and profits (from €21.5b to €11.5b). On the other hand, the growing number of partner transit and consumer states has added to the  already extremely high project expenses, estimated to total some $25b.


2. Shrinking production on Russia’s existing gas fields, accompanied by the  postponed decision about the future of the ‘Shtokman project’ in the Barents sea, raise questions about the possibility of filling the whole gas flow (63bcm per year) of South Stream that comes from the Western Siberian gas fields. The fact that the heads of Gazprom/Russia have never mentioned the origin of the gas for South Stream may also be indicative.


3. New political situation in Ukraine. Ukraine is the single most important transit country for natural gas, because across its territory passes two gas pipelines – Soyuz and Bratstvo – that provide gas for almost the whole of Europe. After the election of a new government, it appears that relations between Kiev and Moscow are once again harmonious as they were before the Orange revolution. Russia agreed to a 30 percent drop in the price of natural gas sold to Ukraine, in exchange for permission to extend Russia’s lease of a major naval base in Sevastopol for an additional 25 years, with an additional 5 year renewal option (to 2042–47) . Furthermore, Russia intends to increase the existing capacities of the aforementioned pipelines (which is an incomparably cheaper option than constructing a new pipeline, especially under the Black Sea), and Gazprom is ever more determined to merge with Ukrainian Neftehaz, which would, de facto, put the Ukrainian gas energy sector completely under Russian control.


4. Delivery of gas from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Establishing new economical and energy links with China and Iran, Turkmenistan diversified the export of its gas, which can lead to reduced exports to Russia. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is turning into a key player, whose future decisions are very hard to foresee. The political influence of Russia in this oil and gas rich country is increasing, after almost two decades of pro-western politics. Azerbaijan’s gas fields are a source of gas for the rival Nabucco pipeline, therefore, developments in this country will be of the utmost importance for both projects.


5. Uncertain start of the construction of Nabucco. The growing influence of Russia in Turkey (for instance, the proposed use of the Turkish economic zone in the Black Sea, investment in the nuclear plant project in Eastern Turkey), which does not always maintain good relations with the EU; the mysterious ways of Azerbaijan, which is due to provide the majority of gas supplies for Nabucco; the insecure situation in the Northern Iraq, another important source of gas, continue to postpone the onset of the Nabucco project.  Some analysts think that without Nabucco, South Stream loses its key raison d’etre.


Taking into account all these variables, it is difficult to say when and whether the construction of South Stream will actually start; a consideration that may represent a damaging blow to Serbia’s already weak and vulnerable energy security.  The Serbian side has violated an elementary rule of risk management by failing to articulate an alternative plan, with the aim of both diversifying and reducing risk. Unfortunately, the long expected and much-lauded benefits from granting exclusivity to a  ‘traditional ally’ currently do not seem so obvious.


Vladimir Ninković is a project officer (security) with TransConflict Serbia.











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