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30/12/2007 | Russia, Serbia - The Calculations Behind an Energy Takeover

Stratfor Staff

Russian natural gas giant Gazprom is pressuring Serbia to sign an agreement handing over the majority stake in the Serbian state-owned oil and natural gas company Nafta Industrija Srbije (NIS) by Dec. 25, according to Stratfor sources. Russia is interested in controlling Serbia, not only politically but also economically. If successful, the tactic — one of the Kremlin’s favorites — would assure that Serbian acquiescence to Moscow’s demands will not be fleeting.

 

As Russia and the West tussle over the future of the Balkans, the Serbian government’s working group on the privatization of the Balkan nation’s oil and natural gas monopoly, Nafta Industrija Srbije (NIS), has until Dec. 25 to decide on the Russian proposal for the acquisition of NIS. The monopoly owns Serbia’s three refineries and a number of storage facilities, as well as the distribution network for oil and natural gas products — including the majority of gasoline stations in Serbia and the infrastructure for the transport of oil and natural gas.
 

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller presented the offer to NIS during his October visit to Serbia. The proposal calls for the formation of three independent companies; Gazprom would own 51 percent of these new entities, while the Serbian government would own 49 percent. One would build and operate the South Stream line through Serbia, another would build and operate storage facilities and the third would run NIS.

According to Stratfor sources, authorities in Moscow apparently want to see a deal on South Stream between Russia, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria signed in Sofia in a Jan. 18, 2008, ceremony. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly would attend the signing, so Moscow is demanding an answer from Belgrade by Dec. 25. Such an announcement would show that Russia has not only political control of Serbia but also economic control as well — something the Kremlin increasingly has sought over its neighbors.

Serbia’s conservative and pro-Russian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, heads the NIS working group. While the majority of the group — comprised of economic and energy ministers — supports the Gazprom offer, a few from President Boris Tadic’s pro-West party fear giving Russia such a strategic national enterprise without a public auction. Parliament will have to vote on any decision by the working group, probably in early 2008, since the deal would constitute an international agreement.

Gazprom argues that its offer is by far the best, considering its proposed infrastructure improvements, and the firm has said that it will not participate in a public auction. Gazprom also has announced plans to invest more than $2 billion in Serbia, including funds for modernizing NIS. The Russian energy giant fears that its offer will become politicized as the Serbian presidential election between pro-Western and pro-Russian candidates approaches — and particularly as opposition to the Gazprom offer from the NIS leadership and unions becomes more publicly visible.

In deciding how to respond to Gazprom’s offer, politicians in Serbia must choose between geopolitical calculations (e.g., locking in Russian strategic interests in Serbia and thus further assuring Moscow’s support in the Kosovo imbroglio) and financial and economic long-term considerations. NIS also is considering a takeover by Austrian state-owned energy firm OMV, in collaboration with Greece’s Hellenic Petrol. OMV represents the economically wiser course for NIS, since the Austrian firm would be better able to modernize NIS than Gazprom, and its investment would not depend on a promise of a South Stream branch that might not be finished — and might not make economic sense to begin with. Moreover, OMV has been buying up a good deal of Southeastern European energy infrastructure, so its involvement in NIS would ensure the possibility of a Serbian linkup with the rest of the Continent.

If Belgrade chooses the economically sounder alternative, it will offend the only real ally Serbia has, as well as one that has promoted Serbian interests in Kosovo. For its part, Gazprom could be counting on the Serbs to show that they understand that the Russians bring more than just money to the table and help the Kremlin lock Serbia into a long-term alliance that is not contingent on crises and temporary geopolitical situations.

 

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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