Two energy conferences are taking place this week -- one in Bulgaria, the other in Turkmenistan -- that could result in major decisions being made on pressing issues surrounding European imports.
State officials and business representatives in both Sofia and Ashgabat will be discussing how to reliably transit energy resources -- mainly natural gas -- from locations in Asia to markets in Europe.
There are subtle differences in the agendas of the two conferences, but both will be focused on divining which pipelines will transport gas to Europe, and from which countries the gas will come.
The meetings come as Europe is attempts to break free from its heavy dependency on Russian-controlled energy supplies and troublesome transit routes that pass through Belarus and Ukraine.Two Main Issues
Federico Bordonaro, of the Italy-based energy analysis group equilibri.net, says two main issues will be on the table in the Bulgarian capital, where the two-day "Security and Partnership" conference is set to begin on April 24.
"The first one will be the diversification of access to natural gas by the European Union," Bordonaro says. "And obviously there will be talk about Nabucco and South Stream, which is an alternative to Nabucco. [South Stream] is the alternative that the Russians back."
South Stream is a pipeline intended to deliver 31 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually of either Russian gas or gas purchased by Russia from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to Europe via the Caucasus and Turkey.
The Nabucco gas pipeline project (click to enlarge)
Many European Union states prefer the Nabucco project
, which also promises to deliver some 31 bcm of gas from Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and the Middle East -- possibly including Iran -- to Europe via the Caucasus.
The Sofia conference could end up settling the crucial question of whether Nabucco or South Stream will be the first project to bring gas to Europe.
Another recent development that is likely to receive attention at the conference is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new energy charter with Europe.
“This is a very delicate matter,” Bordonaro says, “and it is of course something that once again risks splitting the European Union between those who favor a grand bargain with the Russians, and those who instead prefer a tougher stance toward the Russians and prefer a more autonomous European strategy on energy without the Russians.”
Medvedev announced his new energy charter on April 20 without going into detail.Difficult To Convince
Delegates from EU countries that were once part of the former Soviet bloc are apprehensive about closer energy ties with Russia. Many of the Central and Southeastern EU countries were left without gas during a bitter cold snap in January, when a dispute between Russia and transit country Ukraine halted supplies of Russian gas.
These countries are likely to continue arguing for non-Russian pipelines. But the larger, more powerful EU countries that have been purchasing Russian gas for decades, such as Germany, may be difficult to convince.
The Russians will put tremendous pressure on the Turkmen, on Turkmen decisionmakers, in order to enhance the cooperation with the Russians instead of with the Europeans.
Turkmenistan, meanwhile, is hosting its first-ever international energy conference. The forum, which comes with the cumbersome title “Reliable and Stable Transit of Energy and Its Role in Ensuring Sustainable Development and International Cooperation," is being held with support from the United Nations.
But while the stated theme is energy security, the conference, which begins on April 23, is likely to be dominated by the issue of the Caspian’s resources, especially in Turkmenistan.
The forum comes as traditionally good ties between Turkmenistan and Russia's Gazprom energy giant have soured after a pipeline explosion on April 9 cut supplies of Turkmen gas to Russia.
Gazprom currently purchases almost all of the gas Turkmenistan sells. The Turkmen government is holding Gazprom responsible for the explosion, despite the fact that it took place on Turkmen territory.Ratchet Up Pressure
Some observers speculate that Turkmenistan will use the conference to ratchet up pressure on Gazprom -- especially after the Turkmens signed a critical agreement with Germany on April 16 that is bound to irritate the Russian company.
“The Germans have just signed a groundbreaking accord with the Turkmen, and this will relaunch the possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline, which will enhance the possibilities to realize the Nabucco project,” Bordonaro says.
The German signatory is the energy company RWE, a shareholder in Nabucco. This has prompted fresh hopes the Nabucco project will be realized and has raised the stakes for Russia, which is trying to maintain its tight grip on Caspian gas exports to Europe.
Igor Sechin, the influential deputy to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is due to attend the Turkmen conference, as is Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko.
Bordonaro says he expects Russian delegates to the conference will be prepared to counter European moves in Turkmenistan.
“The Russians will put tremendous pressure on the Turkmen, on Turkmen decisionmakers, in order to enhance the cooperation with the Russians instead of with the Europeans,” Bordonaro says.
But in the end, Bordonaro says, the Turkmen government will want to use this opportunity to at last show Moscow that Turkmenistan’s gas is not the property of the Russian government.
“I am sure that the Turkmen will exploit this occasion in order to advertise for their country, because I am sure that the Turkmen want to launch a new era in their foreign policy, in their commercial foreign policy, which follows in the steps of Kazakhstan,” he says. “That is to say, not to reason in terms of blocs, but to reason in terms of a multivector foreign policy.
“So the Turkmen have this chance to work closely with the Russians, with the Chinese, with the Iranians, with the Turks, and with the European Union.”
The two conferences come some two weeks before the EU hosts an energy summit in Prague to discuss so-called Southern Corridor projects.RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report