Athens plays Russian card, eyes Turkish Stream

Alexis Tsipras [matthew_tsimitak/Flickr]

Preparing the ground for a much-discussed visit in Moscow (8-9 April), Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras reiterated his opposition to EU sanctions against Moscow, adding that debt-ridden country’s ambition is to upgrade its relations with Russia.

According to a communiqué from the his’s office, Tsipras will hold meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and will talk about various issues including energy cooperation and EU-Russia relations.

In an interview with the state-owned Russian news agency Tass, Tsipras said that Greek-Russian relations received a blow last year, “as the previous Greek governments didn’t do their best to avoid the sanctions [against Moscow] due to Ukraine crisis”.

“Economic war as a continuation of the real war is a road to nowhere,” he said, adding that during the last European Union summit, he asked his EU partners about the sanctions issue but got no response.

“Many didn’t give any answer […] According to me, the answer is clear: the new security architecture in Europe should include Russia too.”

He continued saying that in times of geopolitical imbalance, Athens “could be the link, bridge between the West and Russia”. “We should see how our nations and countries can really cooperate in many spheres – the economy, energy, trade, agriculture,” Tsipras added, “and find out where we can help each other”.

According to the latest figures of Eurostat, Russia was the top trade partner on imports of goods in 2014, while for exports, the primary destination was Turkey.

Expansion of Turkish Stream to Greece

“A new chapter opened in relations between Greece and Russia,” Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis told the Athens-Macedonian News Agency from Moscow after a meeting this week with the Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller.

Lafazanis also announced the expansion of Russia-driven Turkish Stream pipeline to Greece, saying that the final decision on the issue will be taken by the Greek Prime Minister, based on the national interests of Athens and not the European Commission, which according to him, “is not an uncontrolled boss of EU national governments”.

Turkish Stream is a Gazprom pipeline project to bring Russian gas across the Black Sea to Turkey, and from there, to a hub at the Turkish-Greek border.

One of the aims of the project is to bypass Ukraine, and another, to punish Bulgaria, which Russia blames for having obstructed the construction of South Stream.

Greece imports 65% of its annual gas needs from Russia. Despite a deal for a gas price reduction by 15% last year between natural gas importer and distributor (DEPA) and Gazprom, Greeks keep on paying the highest bill in Europe, due to the state monopoly that has dominated the Greek energy market.

>>Read: Athens opposes EU energy strategy, blocks privatisations

Gazprom’s Miller expressed concern that the consumption of Russian natural gas in Greece has dropped, and said “we understand what it is attributed to and we hope the new government corrects the situation”.

He also blamed the European Commission, which in his words did its best to stop the South Stream pipeline, and warned that if the EU does not create its own infrastructure at the Greek-Turkish borders, up to 47 billion cubic meters of natural gas would be lost for Europe.

According to Miller, of the total 63 billion tonnes of natural gas to be carried by the new pipeline, 16 billion tonnes will be distributed on Turkish territory for its needs. The rest will be sold either in Europe, or on the free market.

In an effort to downplay the significance of Tsipras’s visit in Moscow German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande in Berlin this week: “We were also in Moscow and we’re still members of the European Union and stand unified,” she underlined, referring to a visit of both EU leaders to Putin at the Kremlin in February to hold discussions over the conflict in Ukraine.

Economic affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici in an interview with the Portuguese journal Diario Economico, recently said:

“I don’t understand why Mr Tsipras should not visit Mr Putin. It is pretty clear that Russia is not an alternative for Greece. Greece’s position is in the Eurozone and there is no reason for concern”.

“The thaw in relations with Russia, strengthening ties with China and with the countries of southern Europe are not merely legitimate targets, but also necessary both in the direction of [country’s] independence, and to break the anti-European logic of asymmetric power of a few states within the EU”, told EURACTIV Greece in an interview Syriza MEP, Sofia Sakorafa.

“It is inconceivable that Germany plays its own game with Russia serving its energy interests and at the same time requires from Greece to follow a slavish and against its interests policy”, she added.

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