When Business is Politics

Russia’s friendly overture toward Iran Wednesday, promising cooperation in the oil and gas industries, is just the latest example of the former Soviet superpower’s subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) efforts to increase its political clout in a key region by pursuing business deals that flout Western agenda.

In his commentary on RFE/RL Gregory Feifer notes, that, while it may be tempting to dismiss the recently-captured Russian spies as incompetent, these days it’s business, not intelligence services, that play a key role in advancing Russia’s interests. “For Russia, which depends on its oil and gas exports, commercial energy interests and political power are inseparable,” writes Feifer.

This is particularly true in Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russia’s gas and oil resources. As evidenced on several occasions in the last decade, exerting political pressure on countries in the region can be as simple as halting the oil supply traveling through the Druzhba pipeline to Eastern and Central Europe. But Feifer focuses on more subtle methods of augmenting political control: Russian companies gaining influence on local energy markets and in local companies, and lobbying governments in the region.

“Unlike Western firms, which lobby largely in their own interests,Russian state-controlled and private enterprises play an integral rolein Kremlin foreign policy,” Feifer writes. According to former Czech Environment Minister Martin Bursik, quoted inFeifer’s piece, Russian companies  are still using old communistcontacts in the region.

Feifer lists several local energycompanies, among them the Czech Vemex and the Austrian-based Centrex,whose ownership is difficult to trace and which are largely controlledby the Russian Gazprom. Germany, Italy and Austria, meanwhile, arepoised to increase their reliance on Russian gas as they take part inbuilding two new pipelines from Russia. And then there is Ukraine,notes Feifer, whose current pro-Kremlin government accepted a discounton Russian gas in exchange for extending Russia’s lease on Sevastopol,a port on the Black Sea.

What would Europe’s political landscapelook like were Russia to regain the influence it lost with the fall ofthe Iron Curtain? Czech writer Martin Sichinger imagines such a worldin his new novel Hudba pro Anvilany (Music for Anvilany). “Russia willhave even greater influence on Central and Western Europe than it didin the past because it will control an increasingly larger and largerproportion of oil and natural gas,” says Sichinger in an interview withthe Czech daily Hospodářské novinyWednesday. Sichinger’s vision, situated 20 years in the future andperhaps owing some of its inspiration to Cold War-era conspiracytheories, is a work of science fiction. At least for now.