Visegrade + Group Aims to Boost Energy Security

Being a new member of a club means sometimes you are not too sure how to act. It takes a while to figure how everything operates, how you should socialize and how you should express you opinions without overstepping. The meeting of the Visegrad + group on February 24th, 2010 in Budapest is proof that the new 2004/07 EU member states have come into their own.

The meeting itself was attended by the Visegrad group of countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia plus a range of other CEE and SEE countries’ representatives and international stakeholders, including the US. At the end of the day, they issued a wide ranging statement concerning energy security and investment. While the content of the statement itself is important and note worthy. What is the most noteworthy is that these countries came together themselves, in this format – that is initiated by themselves to discuss energy security.

Energy gatherings in the region usually come about by the initiative of non-state groups, or they are held in a bi-lateral or technical format. But not actually as a regional grouping of states, with Prime Ministers at the lead, taking the bull by the horns and stating “this is what we are going to do as a region.”

The statement from the conference itself is interesting. The Russian backed South Stream gets a little endnote, while Nabucco and diversification through interconnectors (see NETS project) gets emphasis. The timing is also interesting as Medvedev of Gazprom just made a sweep through the region to solidify support for South Stream with the regions’ governments.

The relegation of South Stream as an end-note is of particular interest as it doesn’t match up with the expressed public support that Hungary, Serbia and Austria have expressed for the project. Bulgaria is now putting the project on hold as it reviews the terms of its participation, it remains to be seen whether, the next Hungarian government will conduct a similar ‘review’. All in all, the end-noting of South Stream is akin to bringing your girlfriend to your new club then leaving her in the corner for the night. You may have some explaining to do the next day.

Content wise, the conference appears that the leaders of CEE and SEE countries now see advantages in working together. At the conference the Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai summarized the infrastructure coordination best as a  “gas supply triangle.”

The draft strategy to reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies piped through the transit country Ukraine involve a liquefied natural gas terminal on Poland’s Baltic Sea coast, a similar terminal on the Croatian island of Krk in the Adriatic, and the much talked about Nabucco gas pipeline, which would transport Central Asian petroleum products through Turkey to Austria. The V4 leaders all endorsed Bajnaj’s proposal (source).

The coming Energy Triangle will take a significant amount of coordinated work on infrastructure and investment to bring the region up to a level that is reflected in the gas networks of Western Europe. Nonetheless, the reflection of the intent to coordinate this investment, and more importantly, taking the initiative themselves, the Visegrad and other CEE/SEE countries, have now found their own united voice. Sustaining this common agenda of energy security will take persistence by everyone, not just declarations at regional summits. The fact that this was part of the Visgrad Group, and not some EU/US/local conference organizers bringing these leaders together is a suggestion of how far meaningful cooperation is developing in the region.

It is also clear that these countries will have to balance their relations with Russia over their individualized approaches to energy security/dependency. As the leader of South Stream has stated, Nabucco and South Stream are not competing pipelines. If this is true, the new regional initiative in energy cooperation of Moscow’s former satellites won’t be a problem.

One final note, and this strikes at the heart of one of my growing annoyances of events in the CEE and SEE region. The international press coverage, or rather even the press coverage of Western European based news organizations of this event was near zero (according to Google searches). I don’t know if this was due to the lack of effort by the organizers of the conference or just a general lack of interest in energy/everything in Eastern Europe. But again, significant events go unreported. However, it remains to be seen what will be the long term effect of this agreement and how energy security cooperation will be improved in the CEE/SEE region. Follow through is everything.