Note: I’m reposting this as it originally appeared in the Energy Security blog, Feb 3, 2010. It still remains relevant in light of the appearance of yet another pipeline project.
The roll-out of the gas pipelines continued last week as Hungary sought to add diversity to its gas supply. Diversity in this term refers to diversifying away from the Ukraine as a transit country, but not from Russian gas. The fifth Hungarian-Russian intergovernmental joint committee meeting resulted in Hungary progressing further in its balancing act of supporting both South Stream and Nabucco. The Hungarian state owned development bank (MFB) with Gazprom set up a joint company to begin pipeline preparations. Hungary may soon be bursting at the seams with gas – but why support both pipelines?
The geopolitical balance that Hungary must strike between competing pipelines results in it choosing a dual pipeline approach: a national compromise of sorts that balances the need to anchor it with neighbors for gas supply diversification and its pragmatic trading relationship with Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 attempted to balance the need for Hungarian independence and statehood with Habsburgian dominance and, in the age of Bismarck – realpolitic.
Under the Compromise of 1867, Austria and Hungary each had separate parliaments that met in Vienna and Buda that passed and maintained separate laws. Each region had its own government, headed by its own prime minister….The suggestion for a dual monarchy was made by the Habsburgs but Hungarian statesman Ferenc Deák is considered the intellectual force behind the Compromise….He also felt that Hungary benefited through continued unity with a wealthier, more industrialized Austria (Wikipedia).
The fact that the Russian army effectively put down the 1848 Hungarian revolution combined with Hungarian ties to the Habsburg European monarchy were large influences on the Compromise of 1867. The dual monarchy, as is the dual pipeline, is a reflection of Hungary’s continual balancing act. Unable to break free from Russian influence yet striving to be ‘in’ economically successful Europe, Hungary steers a path that reflects east-west relations. The choice between South Stream and Nabucco gas pipelines reflects this same dual approach.
The support given to both projects by Hungary is genuine. The country can benefit from not just diversity of supplies (routes and sourcing) but also from transit and storage fees that both pipelines can bring to the country. In the age of financial meltdown, social tensions and falling revenue streams Hungary is ill placed to deny additional revenue. Hungary’s oil and gas group MOL, last week reaffirmed an agreement with Gazprom to begin the development of an underground gas storage site at the depleted Pusztafoldvar-Dus gas field– which can/will be utilized by South Stream. Thus even in the case of MOL which is a key partner in the Nabucco project, benefits from participating in the South Stream project can be had. In addition, the Hungarian feasibility study for South Stream will be carried out by MOL within a joint venture MOL-Gazprom company. There should be no illusions, even Hungary’s premier Nabucco partner is set to gain from the Hungarian section of South Stream. Whether MOL would also participate in the actual building of South Stream is unknown, but no other company in Hungary has the expertise.
Therefore, whether one or two pipelines are built in Hungary, MOL may also be positioning itself to be involved in these dual projects. Therefore, without undermining MOL’s position and economic interests, the Hungarian government (with MFB) has stepped in to support the ‘competing’ or ‘complimentary’ pipeline (depending on ones perspective). Politically, Hungary can maintain its international relations, balance neighborhood policy and diversify its gas supply by moving forward in a dual manner.
According to Sergei Kupriyanov, Gazprom spokesman in a March 2009 interview with a Hungarian radio station, “South Stream will be built to supply Russian gas to European consumer. The two projects are totally incomparable; Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals.” And this is where the solution for the Hungarian government may lie. Diversification for security of supply concerns, as both South Stream (non-Ukrainian transit) and Nabucco (non-Russian supply) provide justification for the acceptance and support of both pipelines.
This ‘dual pipeline’ approach allows Hungary, as it has in the past, to walk a fine line between supporting the Russian position and economic interests while also showing support to the ‘neighborhood’ pipeline which seeks supply diversification. The dual monarchy that Hungary participated in, was not the ideal solution, nor the full expression of national sentiment – what it did, through Deák’s statesmanship, was satisfy the competing demands of the nation from internal as well as external tension. The failure of the 1848 revolution firmly placed the future state of Hungary within the Russian sphere of influence – along with the reaction (or lack thereof) of England and France – thereby relegating Hungary to the margins of Europe, where to this day, it still relies on realpolitic for economic and social development.
The acceptance of both South Stream and Nabucco demonstrates the continual balance Hungary, and its companies, play in advancing economic development and their security of supply in energy. The participation of France in South Stream while the demands of the EU (including Austria) lie with Nabucco symbolizes the geopolitical fate of Hungary.