Hungary is a Russian Gas Fuelled Grasshopper Biting Ukraine

This post is also available on Natural Gas Europe. But with a more professional title.

Just as surely winter comes every year, so does the heating season. However, if the justification from Hungary’s TSO, FGSZ is to be believed, they need to stop gas shipments to Ukraine to prepare for this winter. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban appears to be the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable. The Grasshopper and Ant story is about a grasshopper that plays all summer while the ants work – in preparation for winter. Well, in the cartoon version, it only takes the fall leaves to be blowing for the grasshopper to get cold and regret that he didn’t work harder. In our version today, it is the Hungarian government who didn’t work hard enough in the summer. Although on a state radio news broadcast last Friday night, Orban was credited with ensuring the country has enough gas for the winter – the announcer just didn’t mention this was at the expense of Ukraine.

If we can piece together events, on September 25th it was Naftogaz of Ukraine that suddenly found out, through an email from Hungarian TSO FGSZ, the counterpart was halting deliveries to Ukraine. Media reports imply this was after pressure from Gazprom’s head Alexei Miller met with Orban. However, I do not agree. Hungary is on too good of terms to be threatened by Russia – unlike Poland which disrupted flow for a few days after Russian pressure in September.

The reason Russia refrains from threatening Hungary is the Hungarian Prime Minister is at the forefront in Europe arguing against sanctions over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. In addition, Orban spearheaded and flew in secret to Russia to sign a deal with Putin to expand the existing nuclear power plant. A big win for Russia to get an EU member to sign up to Russian nuclear technology. Hungary has secured a Russian loan to build the plant, despite having no discussions with the Hungarian public or any feasibility studies. Orban is in charge of Hungary’s energy policy – and representing Russia in the EU. He also pushes to restrain Ukrainian western leanings. Pushing for great autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine matches Orban’s nationalistic zeal and his regional agenda; autonomy for ethnic Russians also matches Putin’s agenda in Ukraine. Hungary turning off the taps to Ukraine benefits both Russia and Hungary, by keeping Kiev under pressure.

Technically speaking, Hungary halted deliveries to Ukraine to receive significant quantities of western bound Gazprom gas to be stored in Hungary. The history here is on September 16th Hungary’s Development Minister Miklós Seszták received Russian deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky. They discussed the ability for Hungary to store gas for Russia, around 500 million cubic meters. This would take 15 – 20 days to transfer into Hungary’s underground storage. In a scenario that gas flows from Russia, traversing Ukraine, are cut off then Gazprom’s gas would be available to European consumers – and to Hungary. Importantly, it helps Hungary because as of September 27th, the storage capacity was at 62%. It is, however, no accident that Hungary’s capacity is this low at the onset of autumn.

In May 2014, at an event hosted by Central European University the issue of Hungary’s ill preparedness was discussed. A now former manager at Hungary’s state owned Hungarian Gas Storage company, stated that the biggest issue facing Hungary was the low reserves and the financing of gas purchases. The reserves then were at 25% capacity. In short, money to buy gas was inhibiting Hungary’s ability to prepare for the coming winter. Therefore, the current low gas levels of 60% should not be seen in isolation. The lack of gas is a result of the lack of stable state finances for the energy sector and Orban’s energy ‘war’ waged against foreign owned energy utilities. The energy sector is now showing the stresses of heavy state ownership. The flooding of gas into the Hungarian system is at best a result of poorly managed state energy assets, at its worst, it is a calculated move against Ukraine.

Since 2010 Orban has put energy assets under state ownership and driven utility prices lower. Now, the utility sector, and particular retail gas companies, are deeply in debt, they are incurring huge losses to pay for the Fidesz government’s more than 25 percent reduction in electricity and gas bills instituted a year ago. The Orban government is now laying out a plan to have ‘non-profit’ utilities. This is hard to see how the sector can shift from horrific losses to a non-profit-chartable-status without increasing consumer costs. The cost reduction and continued nationalization of assets are set to continue.

Mike and HU energy billboard
A billboard proclaiming Hungary winning the energy war against the foreign owned utilities. This is me biking around Lake Balaton – my field research.

The story of Hungary cutting off gas supplies should not be seen as Hungary bending to Russian pressure, rather Russia is helping out Hungary. Central to Orban’s grip on elections is ensuring Hungarian’s feel benefits. Whether this is in the form of retroactively changing mortgage loans between banks and their clients – forcing the banks to payback money in cash, or buying E.ON’s gas storage unit – for energy security reasons – Hungary needs to project power and responsibility over its own fate – and at the same time, deliver cash into the pockets of Hungarians. Russia can help finance and make life more comfortable for Hungarians. Ensuring the Hungarian energy system functions is now dependent on Russian short and long term investments into the country (gas and nuclear).

Hungary needs more gas in its storage in case there is an interruption between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is more than happy to store gas in Hungary, this deal does the following four things to benefit Russia and Hungary: 1) Russia stores gas in Hungary and not in its normal location in Ukraine, giving it European market access and depriving Ukraine of the chance to siphon any off; 2) Previously stored gas was ensured by E.ON Foldgaz Storage, but storage is now owned by the Hungarian state- which lacks the funds to buy large quantities of gas; 3) Hungary boosts its gas reserves with no money down, it only buys from Gazprom if there is an emergency and needs to use it; and 4) Hungary gives the elbow to Ukraine (like it has throughout the entire Ukraine-Russia conflict) but doesn’t inflict significant pain, just cuts off gas for a few weeks proclaiming its own security as more important. Nowhere in this analysis is the assumption that Russia threatened Hungary with a gas cut-off for supplying Ukraine with gas.

Hungary could have – and should have, bought sufficient amounts of gas over the summer. Instead, the country’s leadership were playing with grasshoppers. Back in the spring or early summer the Hungarian government could have struck the same storage deal with the Russians. Instead both Russia and Hungary have waited until the last minute to unroll their ‘technical’ response to Hungary’s low storage capacity. By Russia flooding Hungary’s gas system, Ukraine is deprived of valuable and necessary capacity to help mitigate their looming winter gas shortage. In a generous reading, Hungary is an unprepared neighbor. In a bad reading, Hungary is colluding with Russia to short Ukraine of gas. Let’s hope Hungary is a grasshopper.