At the end of last year, Belarus threatened to stop delivering Russian gas to Europe through its pipelines. Europe relies on Russia for a quarter of its gas needs, 20 percent of which transit through Belarus. The row between Minsk and Russian giant Gazprom threatened to seriously disturb supplies to Europe, particularly Lithuania, Germany and Poland, before a last-minute deal was reached.
A similar arm-wrestling match between Russia and Ukraine which carries the remaining 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe left many out in the cold last winter. Austria, Hungary and Poland were badly affected when Gazprom cut its supplies to Kiev. Moscow claims it needs to bring prices into line with European rates after years of granting its neighbours below-market deals.
But critics such as Georgia argue that it is a political manoeuvre by the Kremlin to punish them for building ties with the West, and an attempt to consolidate its economic supremacy in the region. A year ago, Russia temporarily cut off supplies to Georgia blaming a ruptured pipeline.
Russia sits on one third of the world’s gas reserves which it exports via the state-controlled monopoly Gazprom. The recent crises have highlighted Europe’s dependency on outside sources and its vulnerability, raising the need for alternatives. In a bid to diversify its energy supply, the European Union has launched the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would carry central Asian gas via Turkey to Europe. But it will not be ready until 2012.
According to a European Commission report, Europe will be importing two-thirds of its energy requirements by 2020, including three quarters of its gas needs. Figures which, combined with growing environmental awareness, are prompting many to look to France which has chosen to walk down the nuclear path.