Thursday, 29 January 2015

Greece: The Geopolitics of Gas and the Pivot Towards Russia.

Syriza's election victory in Greece is being hailed as a victory for hope and change against  EU-and especially German-imposed austerity measures and continued cuts to public services. On its domestic policies, Syriza's credentials as a democratic leftist challenge to 'the system' look good.

However, there are already ominous voices in certain quarters claiming that the Syriza government's lack of backing for EU sanctions against Russia, over the war in Ukraine, is connected to the long standing crypto-communist ties the Greek left has with Moscow as well as 'extreme' nationalism'.

Throughout 2014, Syriza's leader and now the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, condemned the Kiev government for tolerating neo-fascists in positions of power and influence, something leaders of liberal democracies in the West refused to do as the orthodox line had to be Russia bad/Ukraine good.

No doubt that is going to be countered in the West by a prolonged smear campaign throughout 2015 over Greece's foreign policy and 'appeasing' Vladimir Putin. The usual jargon term for any force, whether democratic or not, which opposes doctrinaire neoliberal policies of the IMF is 'populist'

The Economist insinuated that EU unity could be 'severely challenged' by a revival of historical ties with Russia, ones based on a common Orthodox Christian faith. The new Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, was reported to be a 'friend' of Russian religious-nationalist thinker Alexander Dugin.

Of course, the electoral results did not give an outright victory for Syriza. It had to do a deal with a small right-wing nationalist party to form the next government. But, through the public challenge Syriza poses to the EU and IMF, Greece appears to be offering an 'alternative' to Western 'globalism'.

Syriza is unenthusiastic about NATO. Its manifesto contains a passage which calls for "the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances such as Nato." In fact, Greece has had a chequered history as a NATO member because of regional power rivalries.

Greece has previously left the organisation as it did in protest at Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974 until 1980 when it re-joined. By moving closer to Russia, Greece would certainly stand to antagonise Turkey given Russia's backing for President Assad in Syria and close relations with Nicosia.

Greece and Turkey became aligned with the West as joint recipients of Marshal Aid from the US as part of the policy of containing communism in the 1940s and 1950s. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and had led to resurgence of religious-based nationalism in the Near East in the 2000s.

One major consequence of that is older historical and geopolitical rivalries are cutting across Cold War alliances as Greece aligns against Turkey because of tensions over who owns Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves in maritime waters off the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

Growing tensions with Turkey partly reflect Greek antipathy towards President Erdogan's neo-Ottoman pretensions. The Greek left has a history of favouring the radical Kurdish nationalists. Syriza gave vocal support to the Kurds in the epic battle for Kobani against the jihadists of ISIS.

Syriza is an ally of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which is close in position to Abdullah Ocalan's banned Kurdish Worker's Party, the group which through the YGP militia had done most of the fighting in Kobani before Erdogan allowed Iraqi Kurds to take control of the battle.

Erdogan regards the YGP as a ethnic irredentist threat to the integrity of his state and to his policy of backing Sunni Arab forces in Syria. The Kurdish Workers Party under Ocalan was historically aligned during the Cold War against Turkey and in favour of Assad's Baathist dictatorship.

Syriza is allied with the pro-Kurdish HDP, a leftist formation prominent in Turkey’s Taksim-Gezi upheavals in the summer of 2013. It almost reached the 10% voter threshold in Parliamentary elections and is popular not only among Turks and Kurds but also Turkish Armenians and Alevis

Ideology and geopolitical self-interest could be leading towards not only to a 'Grexit' from the EU but also towards Greece leaving NATO once more due to its lack of enthusiasm for an expansionist agenda that is seen as being too anti-Russian and too indulgent of the Ukrainian far-right.

A resource struggle is developing. Just as the impact of the global financial crash started to have its impact on Greece after 2010 huge reserves of gas were discovered in 2011 off the coast of Cyprus; the 'Aphrodite' field. Cypriot reserves were said to be 12% higher than first thought by late 2014.

Greece would stand to benefit through becoming an important transit hub for gas from Israel's Leviathan field and Greek Cyprus. But Turkey has opposed a deal to which it was not a party. Hence from 2010 it has been increasingly vocal in condemnation of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Turkey even threatened military action and sending warships to Cyprus if the Greek Cypriots went ahead with drilling. Turkey would be unlikely to do that if Russia moved in to take a role in exploiting the gas and cooperating with Cyprus and Greece as Russia supplies so much gas to Turkey.

Syriza favours aligning with Russia over Ukraine as it can play off EU against it should it prove uncooperative about renegotiating the financial debt repayments which have imposed hardships in Greece for five years. In 2013 Russia's Gazprom offered to bail out Greek Cypriot banks so as to get a stake in tapping the Aphrodite gas field.

With Ukraine descending into war, the pressing need for 'energy diversification' for the EU has made Eastern Mediterranean supplies even more vital. The earlier design for a Qatar-Turkey pipeline through Syria came to nothing because the plan to oust Assad by backing Sunni militants backfired in helping to create ISIS.

Greece would be able to exploit the fact that if the EU remains inflexible over austerity, Russia could step in to develop Eastern Mediterranean gas in Cyprus. This would be a move in addition to the previously planned South Stream gas pipeline that former energy minister Yiannis Maniatis in 2014 supported.
“The partnership dynamic with Gazprom could become even stronger with the construction of the branch of South Stream to Greece, securing in this way a new, modern and safe supply route for Russian natural gas to Greece”.
The decision to drop South Stream was opposed vociferously by Tsipras who supported Putin's plans for pipeline route featuring a hub along Greek-Turkish borders
'Multi-sided energy cooperation and diversificiation of energy sources and routes cannot be based on exclusions, but, instead, creative solutions that benefit, as much as possible, the entire region’s countries It could offer economic benefits to the country and region, and bolster Greece’s role on Europe’s energy map.....We support such a prospect as long as the terms offer real benefits for Greece.”
South Stream was dropped in December 2014 because of EU opposition and sanctions. Russia decided to route the gas via Turkey instead. Then immediately the plans to build a pipeline from Israel through Cyprus to Greece were put forward on 3rd December and EU funds were sought towards that end..

Sanctions on Russia are going to be ratcheted up because it fears the potential loss of Eastern Ukrainian shale gas reserves and a Russian-free transit route for gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The intention of the West had been to drag Ukraine into its sphere of influence and recreate the Black Sea as a 'NATO lake'.

Greece, however, as well as other Balkan powers, have no economic interests in sanctions which damage their developed trade links with Russia. Syriza would not want to miss a chance to be an east-west gas hub rather than a Ukraine run by another set of oligarchs who just happen to be more pro-western than the government overthrown in early 2014.

Greece could become a third theatre in which Russia and the EU are set to clash geopolitically. The economics of austerity is only one part of the calculations at work. As important is the geopolitics of energy flows into the EU from the Middle East and Central Asia. 'Interesting times' may well be ahead

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