On January 1, 2021, at a televised event held near Novi Sad, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended the opening ceremony for the Serbian section of the Balkan Stream natural-gas pipeline, part of a larger project known as TurkStream which delivers Russian gas to Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. The progression of these two pipelines comes at a pivotal moment in US politics as Joe Biden starts his first term and Donald Trump completes his presidency. Beyond the obvious implications on energy distribution and US-EU-Russia relations, TurkStream will also have impacts on regional power distribution in the Balkans and the natural environment of the Black Sea.
Motives Behind the Projects
To fully understand the significance of the Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream projects, it is important to understand their motives, or at least what each major power involved formally and informally states them to be.
According to the Kremlin and the countries which are importing Russian gas, there is strong economic reasoning for Russia to cheaply distribute its natural gas to neighboring markets. This is not an issue that unites EU member states, with Germany outwardly in support of importing increasing amounts of cheap, Russian gas, while others remain in stark opposition. The US and some EU countries argue that the motive of these projects is instead to bypass Ukraine in the distribution of energy to a strategically important region.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, sanctions led primarily by the US temporarily halted pipeline projects and were followed by additional sanctions from the West in 2019, which halted Nord Stream 2 construction altogether. There have been further sanctions against Russia by the Trump Administration as of January 18, 2021, following Germany’s approval of continuing Nord Stream 2 construction. Kremlin officials went as far as to deem these sanctions to be a form of ‘hybrid warfare‘.
The Kremlin believes that US opposition to the Nord Stream project which has been opposed to different degrees both by the Trump administration and former VP Biden during his time with the Obama administration is simply Washington trying to promote its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) sales in Europe. The symbolic strength of these projects is indeed a significant motivator, which can easily be observed in the Russian television channel Russian Insight outwardly describing TurkStream as proof of Russian strength in the European energy market. Moreover, despite the economic justifications that could be made for these projects by supporters, both the US and Russia understand these pipeline projects to also be pillars of regional control, specifically in the Former Soviet Union.
Advantages and Disadvantages of TurkStream
When it comes to TurkStream, the Balkan section of the project is hardly justifiable. The Balkans are already being supplied by the TransBalkan pipeline and EU member Hungary was previously completely supplied by Ukraine’s pipeline, but will now switch to be supplied by the Serbian one. With this in mind, one can begin to question the advantages and disadvantages of TurkStream for its main actors.
Geopolitical and Economic Arguments
TurkStream creates direct Russian access to the Turkish market, while also positioning Turkey to directly supply gas to the EU, theoretically granting them political and economic leverage over both Europe and Russia. And while it may seem disadvantageous for Balkan nations, especially Serbia, to be monopolized by Gazprom, there are distinct benefits including profits from transit fees, job creation, investment (both foreign and domestic), and other economic perks.
Beyond monetary implications, there are also political ones, which include the strategic positioning of Serbia. Russia’s “special relationship” with Serbia was distinctly projected at a meeting involving Putin and Vucic in Sochi on December 4, where Putin blamed Bulgaria for deliberately delaying the project, as the legality conflicted with EU antitrust legislation. Moreover, in Serbia, the pipeline is owned by a joint venture where Gazprom controls 51% of the shares and the state-owned utility Srbijagas controls 49%. Because Serbia does not comply with EU regulations, this type of deal will ultimately move it further away from EU ascension, which, at this point in time, seems to only be a symbolic goal of the leading political parties, rather than a legitimate aspiration.
The lack of a coherent Western policy approach is further magnified in the recent Washington Agreement, signed between Kosovo and Serbia, mediated by the US, on September 4, 2020. The glaring omission of EU representation in the agreement, however, begs the question of whether this agreement will continue to be considered under the new Biden administration. The agreement was, at least on paper, economic in nature, invigorating a regional trade zone or “mini-Schengen” as it has been referred to, between Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia and increasing economic interconnectivity between the two. However, there were also several non-binding agreements around topics like energy security, among others. Moreover, Serbia’s decision to move forward with TurkStream goes directly against the US’s wishes expressed and agreed to in the Washington Agreement. Since then, Kosovo has expressed hesitation and desire to renegotiate the deal with the new administration.
Beyond geopolitics, environmental impact is also an important factor to consider when looking at the long-term effects of TurkStream. The Black Sea is already heavily polluted, overfished, and overdeveloped. This is, in part, due to its geo-economic significance as a major transit route which makes it particularly susceptible to oil spills and other accidental pollution. Previous exploitation during the Soviet era, in addition to modern-day unsustainable fishing practices and runoff pollution, means that the Black Sea could become the first major waterway in the world completely devoid of life. The construction and operation of TurkStream have the potential to push this environment to the brink.
The Role of the EU
The EU has been directly involved in the environmental integrity of the Black Sea since the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Looking at Nord Stream 2, one can observe that the way Europeans approach pipeline construction on their own territory is completely different from how the Russians approach theirs.
In Germany, micro tunneling, a process that is considered “clean” due to the fact fewer materials enter and exit the construction site, is used for pipeline placement. In the highly valuable Kurgalsky reserve in Russia, however, normal construction involving an 85-meter open trench has already had major negative implications on wildlife. Further, because the majority of Russian gas is exported, the amount of gas available to the Russian people has become insufficient. As a result, 30 percent of Russians live in non-gasified homes and instead are fueled by coal, which, in turn, can have a “black sky effect” on local communities due to the “dirty” nature of coal emissions.
Therefore, the EU Third Energy Package which governs natural gas pipeline construction from Russia to the EU can arguably be understood as a green-washing mechanism. Upon further study, it becomes increasingly difficult to observe this legislation as part of a transition to a green energy future when it relies on gas from a production process that destroys natural habitats.
Namely, there remains an issue with justifying LNG as a feasibly sustainable energy source when the market monopoly belongs to Russia. Beyond the reasons previously listed, one can consider the extremely detrimental practice of gas-flaring, a type of gas combustion used to dispose of waste or unusable gas. This practice emits greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, particularly methane and sulfur dioxide which are known carcinogens. Russia leads in world statistics of gas flaring.
Environmental hazards can also pose a significant threat to vulnerable communities. The source of gas for Nord Stream 2 is primarily the Yamal Peninsula, home to various tribal nations whose rights are being violated in order to produce cheap gas. The impacts on these communities and the endangered species they coexist with are not covered in any way, shape, or form in the environmental impact assessment that Gazprom released meaning that they are not taken into account when being considered for EU consumption.
The long-term political and environmental implications of TurkStream are still unknown. However, Nord Stream 2 provides a case study that can allow for reasonable predictions. With all of this information in mind one may ask the following questions:
- Is Serbia doing itself a favor or a political disservice by committing to the TurkStream project?
- How will TurkStream impact Turkey’s position in the balance of power between Europe and Russia? Does the US still play an important role?
- Does importing Russian gas from these new pipelines align with the values of the EU? Can it comply with the environmental goals of the Third Energy Package?