Oil pipeline deal poses dilemma for Poland

Russia's proposal, backed by West, is worth billions; but it means forsaking ally Ukraine.

Wary after centuries of foreign domination, Poles tend to think twice when Russians offer a deal that sounds too good to turn down.

The Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, working with West European partners, has proposed building a new energy pipeline that would traverse Poland, linking the gas fields of western Siberia to lucrative markets in the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested Poland could expect to earn $1 billion per year in transit fees.

But far from welcoming the pipeline as a goodwill gesture, Poles view the idea with caution, if not suspicion. Relations between Warsaw and Moscow have been strained since Poland joined NATO in March 1999. And the chance to play with the region's "big kids" would come at the expense of Ukraine, Poland's eastern neighbor and ally.

Though Warsaw expects membership in the wealthy European Union within a few years, the Polish government is acutely concerned about its impoverished neighbor, which became independent with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Much of Poland's recent history has been determined by treaties and secret protocols hatched in foreign capitals. So while both Western Europeans and Russians favor construction of the transit pipeline, Poles are sensitive not only about how the proposal is being made, but its geopolitical implications as well.

"Our initial reaction was: Why bypass Ukraine when there's already a pipeline there?" says Adam Kobieracki, head of the department on European security policy in the Polish Foreign Ministry. "We, as Poles, cannot ignore the political-economic issues of Ukraine."

Perched on the faultline between Russia and the West - a position historically occupied by Poland - Ukraine would be marginalized by the proposed pipeline, which would loop through Belarus, Poland, and Slovakia to Western Europe. A deepening economic crisis could exacerbate political instability in the Kiev government and drive Ukraine closer into Moscow's orbit.

"We need an independent Ukraine to make sure that the changes on the former Soviet territory are irreversible," says Mr. Kobieracki.

As the most enthusiastic of NATO's three new members, Poland is actively pursuing military cooperation with Ukraine. The two already have a joint battalion, and an agreement signed in November foresees the training of Ukrainian officers in Poland.

From a Ukrainian perspective, Poland's transformation from a Soviet buffer zone to a staunch Western ally is a model worth studying.

"Today, the strategic goal of Ukraine is to join the European Union. We feel that together with Poland we will achieve our goal," says Dmytro Pavlychko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Warsaw.

From a Russian perspective, however, Warsaw's alliance with the West and Kiev's desire to follow are not agreeable. The so-called "bypass" pipeline could be seen as an attempt by Moscow to drive a wedge into the Polish-Ukrainian partnership. By sparking interest in Western Europe, eager to reduce its dependence on Mideast energy sources, Russia has heaped additional pressure on Poland to agree.

Incidents along the Soviet-era gas pipeline in Ukraine haven't helped. For months, Russia has been embroiled in a dispute over Ukraine's unpaid gas bills, which Gazprom claims top $2 billion. Only this month did the two sides reach an agreement to postpone repayment for 10 years.

"I think that our position on the whole pipeline problem helped [Ukraine] obtain such an agreement," says Piotr Koscinski, a former Kiev correspondent for the Warsaw daily Rzeczpospolita.

Economic arguments, Mr. Koscinski adds, don't support the proposal. For one, the existing pipeline crossing Ukraine is working only at 70 percent capacity. Second, he says, it's not clear whether Russia even has enough gas reserves to continue long-term deliveries to the West.

Another source of Polish misgivings is the manner in which it is being discussed. When Warsaw hedged on Moscow's proposal, the Russians promptly took their idea to the European Commission in Brussels and to Western gas companies keen on new energy sources.

"We were just informed that somewhere in Brussels they discussed a new pipeline going from Russia to Western Europe through Poland," says Koscinski, the journalist. "I think the West sees things in the short term, not the long term. They're interested in their profits. They don't see the problems of countries in Central and Eastern Europe."

For a country like Poland, which still depends on Russia for 88 percent of its gas and most of its oil, diversification of energy sources is also a priority. Adding another string to the web of geopolitical pipelines, Warsaw and Kiev are presently planning to build an oil pipeline from the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, to a Baltic terminal in Gdansk, Poland.

Warsaw has indicated that it will only agree to the bypass pipeline if it does not decrease the volume of gas currently passing through Ukraine. Yet powerful interests are at stake that won't make Poland's dilemma any easier. In November, Gazprom announced it is preparing a feasibility study of the pipeline with a consortium of gas companies from Italy, France, and Germany.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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