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Macedonia Caught In East-West Pipeline Tug-Of-War

The tiny Balkan state of Macedonia can now join neighboring Greece as a pawn in the tug-of-war between Moscow and the West on developing alternative routes for delivering Russian gas to its customers in Europe. At least that’s how the Kremlin views the situation.

The country of 2 million, once a part of Yugoslavia, is likely to be part of Russia’s latest plan to build a pipeline in order to ship gas from state-run Gazprom to Europe by bypassing Ukraine and avoid a recurrence of supply disruptions that already have occurred in the past nine years.

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Recently, though, Macedonia has faced competing pro- and anti-government demonstrations sparked by a wiretapping scandal said to involve murder and election trickery. This appears to worry Moscow because it may lead to Gruevski’s ouster in favor of a pro-Western prime minister.

Gruevski is on the record as opposing Western sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukraine conflict, and supports the new Russian pipeline plan, called Turkish Stream, which would carry Gazprom’s fuel through Turkey then the Balkans – probably including Macedonia – to Russia’s European Union customers.

Sergei Lavrov, quoted by the Russian news service Tass, said May 20 that “the Macedonian events are blatantly controlled from the outside” in an effort to persuade Skopje to reject Turkish stream and opt instead for a Western alternative, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which also runs through Turkey.

Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, agreed. “I don’t have any hard-line facts, but it’s a logical suspicion,” he told Bloomberg TV when asked about Lavrov’s comments. “If you look at the geography of the region, Macedonia is the best place for constructing the extension of the newest energy infrastructure project in the region, the so-called Turkish Stream.”

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Turkish Stream was conceived as a replacement for Russia’s proposed $45 billion South Stream pipeline project, which was abandoned in December because of an EU rule that forbids one entity from owning both the pipeline and the gas it carries through EU territory. Macedonia isn’t in the EU, but Turkish Stream also would transit Greece, which is in the union.

Moscow says it would relinquish its share in segments of the pipeline carrying gas through EU member nations. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered transit fees amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to cash-poor Greece if it agrees to become a transit point linking the Turkish stretch of the pipeline with Macedonia, then Serbia, then under the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

If Lavrov’s suspicions of Western pressure are even remotely correct, that would put Macedonia in much the same difficult position as Greece. While Moscow is wooing Athens with money, the West is pressing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to opt instead to allow his country to host an extension of TANAP.

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TANAP not only would eliminate Ukraine from the equation, but eliminate Russian gas as well. The conduit would ship gas from Azerbaijan – and perhaps even from Turkmenistan on the other side of the Caspian Sea – through Turkey and into Europe.

The U.S. argument for TANAP and against Turkish stream is simple, as enunciated by Amos Hochstein, the US State Department’s special envoy on energy affairs: TANAP is already under construction while Turkish Stream remains just the germ of an idea.

By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com

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