Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 179

The publics in the Baltic states and Poland generally feel that Moscow and Berlin or interested German circles — have unjustifiably consorted over the heads of countries situated between Russia and Germany to launch the bilateral gas pipeline project, Nord Stream. At the same time the project impinges on all countries around the Baltic Sea, inasmuch as the Russo-German pipeline would cross all of their maritime territories. Ignoring these countries’ interests, it presents them with a set of uncomfortable political, security, ecological, and maritime safety problems.

This Russo-German project has invited many references to the broader paradigm of 1939. Irrespective of such references, the gas pipeline deal of 2005 and its planned implementation from 2007 could set a precedent whereby Russia and Germany combine to determine maritime and energy policies in the Baltic Sea basin and farther afield in Europe. They could then inform other countries and simply ask them to go along, as Nord Stream has done in Estonia’s case, albeit on incomplete and distorted information.

Estonia became the first country to face these issues directly due to its location next to the Russian starting point of the proposed pipeline, the first section of which would affect Estonian interests. Other countries along the proposed pipeline route apparently feel that they can still wait before making their decisions.

Finland, across the eponymous gulf, was the first to be approached by the Nord Stream company for permission to survey the seabed and presumably lay the pipeline in Finnish waters. However, the Finnish government quickly pushed the ball to Estonia. Citing Finland’s own environmental concerns, Helsinki asked the Nord Stream company in April-May to shift the pipeline route closer to Estonia.

This led to Nord Stream’s request to Estonia on May 31, which Estonia had until late September to answer in accordance with international law. Ultimately, Estonia’s government felt that survey operations, if carried out, would then generate pressure to allow the pipeline itself to be laid along Estonia’s coast, with all the risks that this project entails. The Estonian parliament strongly supports the government’s position.

As predicted (see EDM, April 23), Finland’s buck passing unintentionally gave Estonia the power of decision on Nord Stream’s request. Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen suggested repeatedly, down to the wire, that Estonia should grant such permission; and he expressed regret publicly when Estonia turned down the request. Now Finland seems inclined to reconsider Nord Stream’s request. The Finnish seabed is shallow and has an uneven profile while the Estonian one is comparatively deep and even.

In the Estonian government’s debate, Laar and his party spearheaded the effort to deny permission. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet — both from the Reform Party — ultimately adopted that position, resulting in a full consensus. Even the opposition leader Edgar Savisaar came out against this Gazprom-led project, apparently hoping to stop the recent mass exodus of Estonian voters from his Center Party and its transformation into an ethnic Russian party.

The Nord Stream company has been careful to address the Estonian and other Baltic publics through German spokesmen rather than Gazprom ones. These officials are not attempting to challenge Estonia’s rejection of the survey. They describe it as an unexpected move, necessitating a change of plans but not damaging the project as such.

The Russo-German pipeline is not a European project in any sense. Interested parties ranging from the Kremlin and Gazprom to German business groups and elements in the German government portray this project as a European one. German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeyer used this argument when visiting Estonia the run-up to the decision, as has Vanhanen.

In essence, however, Nord Stream is a bilateral project. Launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, based on political agreements between the two governments, its shareholders are Russian and German, circumventing geographically and politically a host of EU member countries; never qualifying for EU financing (only for a polite but inconsequential nod) contradicting the EU’s declared goals of diversifying supplies away from reliance on Russia, this project is simply a Russo-German one.

The project faces multiple inherent problems that presage construction delays and cost overruns (see EDM, August 16). Estonia’s decision to withhold permission for a seabed survey cannot influence the project’s fate one way or another. Project spokesmen say so themselves, possibly in a bit of project boosting, but in this case it happens to correspond with the facts.

(BNS, Postimees, Interfax, September 15-25; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, September 21)