Derek Brower: Tallinn’s turn

Russia blocks exports of oil to another neighbour and Europe is silent By Derek Brower, journalist WHATEVER the rights and wrongs of the dispute between Russia and Estonia about a statue in the centre of Tallinn, the decision of Russia’s state-controlled railway company to halt exports of refined products to Estonia should remind Europe that the Kremlin still sees energy as its main foreign policy tool. (For controversial analysis of the Bronze Soldier affair, go here and here.) Russian Policy Indignity breeding indignity Moscow said in 2006 that its decision to cut off gas exports to Ukraine – and, effectively, to Europe – was not political. It said the same thing after shutting in exports of oil to Belarus, earlier this year. The Russian argument, that the interruptions were about negotiations over price, was plausible once. After all, the WTO and EU originally called for Russia to increase the price of its gas. Doing so was one reason for the dispute with Ukraine. The Russian argument was less acceptable the second time, when Moscow’s bullying of Minsk was so obviously linked to Russia’s wish to get control of Belarus’ transit infrastructure. But the third time around it is getting a little difficult to take Moscow at its word. Fortunately for the Kremlin, the EU seems reluctant to offer Tallinn the political support that its membership of the Union deserves. Even the attacks on Estonia’s ambassador and embassy in Moscow have met with little more than a muted ticking-off from Brussels. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The EU didn’t rush to the defence of Latvia, when Russia stopped oil exports to that country’s Ventspils terminal. Ostensibly, that “interruption” was because of problems with the pipeline to the terminal. More likely, it was punishment for Riga’s reluctance to sell it to Transneft, the Russian state oil transit company. Latvia’s treatment of its large Russian minority also angered Moscow. Moscow did the same thing to Lithuania, after Vilnius sold control of the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery – the only refinery in the Baltics – to Poland’s PKN Orlen. Yukos had previously controlled that refinery, and Moscow had hoped it would fall into other Russian hands after it crushed that company. It didn’t, so Russia stopped exports of oil to Lithuania, citing another pipeline problem as the reason. The latest bit of energy bullying in the Baltics will see around 900,000 tonnes of exports to Estonia lost this month, according to traders. This time, the Kremlin might be cutting its nose off despite its face: the Estonian oil transit business belongs to Russians already. But Tallinn will lose some transit income and the latest dispute makes it even more vulnerable to other boycotts from Russia. Most of all, though, the latest supply crisis for another neighbour of Russia should remind Brussels of just how fraught its energy relationship with Moscow remains. Alas, so far it also shows just how inadequate the EU’s strategy regarding Russia is. Brussels has repeatedly said that Europe will “speak with a common voice” on energy matters. Yet the silence of Brussels – and Europe’s mass media – must seem deafening to its most vulnerable members in the Baltic states. Their own governments ought to be doing a better job managing the vexed issue of living next door to Russia – the Bronze Soldier issue was unnecessary, provocative, disrespectful and silly. But the EU still needs to do a better job of being a Union.