Estonia’s government has turned down the Russo-German company Nord Stream’s request to survey the seabed off the Estonian coast. The survey was to precede the construction of the Russian gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed to Germany for Gazprom.
The Estonian coalition government took the decision unanimously on September 21. It has met with general understanding in the European Union and in German editorial pages since then, contrary to previous attempts by interested German circles to portray this Gazprom-led project as a European one. Russian media reactions are mildly critical while the Russian government seems reconciled with this setback to one of the Kremlin’s pet projects.
The Estonian government cited national sovereignty in its territorial waters and the national interests in the economic zone as reasons for rejecting Nord Stream’s request to conduct surveying operations. The proposed operations could have revealed data about Estonia’s natural resources and sensitive information about the configuration of its seabed. Tallinn also cited the environmental risks inherent in those operations.
In an official communiqué, Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted the high sensitivity of the Baltic maritime environment and advised that an overland route for the gas pipeline would be preferable to a seabed route. An overland option is also favored by Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, the territories that would have to be traversed by an overland pipeline for Russian gas. Estonia itself, however, is not located directly on the overland route, known as the “Amber Project,” that has previously been proposed for such a pipeline. The Nord Stream company had asked to carry out geophysical and geotechnical research on the seabed off Estonia, including visual observations, drilling, and taking samples from the seabed and below it.
The request had stated that those activities would be carried out in Estonia’s exclusive economic zone. However, the coordinates specified in the request actually extended beyond Estonia’s economic zone, well into the country’s territorial waters. Such a lapse of probity suggests that the request was written by Gazprom, rather than by the German side in the Nord Stream company. The discrepancy between stated intent and actual coordinates raises the question of whether it reflects negligence — or an attempt to misconstrue any positive Estonian response as acceptance of a narrower maritime zone of sovereignty.
That discrepancy could disqualify Nord Stream’s request from the outset and would alone have justified turning down the surveying request, according to former prime minister Mart Laar, leader of the Pro Patria – Res Publica Union in the current coalition government. However, the Estonian government’s decision in essence reflects the intrusive and potentially risky character of the proposed surveying activities.
The rejection was also guided by broader political and security concerns, which were aired during the Estonian national debate leading up to the ultimate decision. Public opinion distrusted this project from the inception, and Moscow unwittingly added to the reasons for distrust. Russian military and civilian officials had been suggesting that the Russian navy might assist with the surveying, constructing the pipeline, and providing naval “security” during the project’s lifetime. Moreover, Estonia and other countries grew concerned about possible Russian submarine activity in non-Russian waters in connection with this project.
The project went ahead without adequate deliberations within the Council of Baltic Sea Countries, a consultative body that includes all riparian countries and is mandated to focus on maritime and ecological issues. Circumvention of that multilateral framework added to apprehensions and resistance from individual countries, of which Estonia is not the only one, although it became the first to face the problem directly.
Nord Stream General Manager Matthias Warnig publicly proposed that the town of Sillamae in northeastern Estonia, bordering Russia, be used as a staging area for pipeline construction, deploying equipment and a Russian work force there. That area was heavily populated with settlers from Russia during the Soviet era. Another mass influx of Russian labor and capital could permanently entrench Russian dominance there, potentially biting off de facto that corner from Estonia.
Warnig’s widely reported background in the former German communist intelligence service, as contact of then-Major Vladimir Putin in Dresden, inevitably affects the Nord Stream project’s image. So does the presence of former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now a Gazprom representative and Nord Stream board chairman. Schroeder scheduled a lobbying visit to Estonia on the project’s behalf. But after rehashing Moscow’s anti-Estonian barbs in a speech to a German audience, Schroeder was informed by Tallinn that he would not be welcome there.
(BNS, Postimees, Interfax, September 15-25; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, September 21)