Saturday, March 1, 2008

RUSSIA'S SUPPORT OF SERBIA IS MORE ABOUT OIL THAN KOSOVO

Since the end of the Balkans wars in the 1990s, the European attitude toward Serbia has been that this renegade of Europe would eventually, inevitably, join the European Union (E.U.).

Of course, Serbia had started the horrific ethnic-nationalist wars that ended with tens of thousands dead. Of course, Serbia's greatest backer was the former Soviet Union, with whom it shared a heritage of the Orthodox Church.

But the world had changed. The U.S.S.R. had become simply "Russia" once again, or the "Russian Federation." Now one could argue that during these last two weeks everything has changed once more -- back to the past.

The transformed Russia of Vladimir Putin -- who will step aside temporarily as Russian president in putative elections this Sunday (March 2) -- has dramatically reinstated its historic relations with Serbia through its partnership with the Serbian gas and oil industry. Along the way, it has taken two other Eastern European nations who are already E.U. members with it into the transaction.

Serbia, with its mix of a political leadership of the old ethnic-nationalists of the '90s and some more pro-European Serbs, has angrily turned eastward once again. Any remaining pro-American tendencies have been decidedly dampened.

And one would not be too far off the mark by speculating that this could be part of Russia's potentially threatening move back into Europe, this time using its energy resources as the pivot, and that new Balkans conflicts could well be arising that we had thought settled.

It is easy to find, in little, long-oppressed Kosovo, that formerly Yugoslav and then Serb enclave of 2 million mostly ethnic Albanians, an excuse for Moscow to move closer again to Belgrade -- for both the United States and the E.U. supported Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Feb. l7. Meanwhile, anyone left in Serbia's more moderate political class proceeded immediately down the road to oblivion.

For comic relief, listen to the words of Serbian President Boris Tadic. At an emergency U.N. Security Council session, he warned that Kosovo's unthinkable act of wanting to rule itself would embolden other separatists across the world. "If you allow this illegal act to stand," he declared, "you will show that right and justice may go unrespected in the world. You will show that, unfortunately, this body of the world organization is losing its authority."

Now it may well be that the United Nations' authority is forever dicey, but to claim "right and justice" for the marauding Serbs of the 1990s should be saved for a Belgrade version of "Saturday Night Live."

Meanwhile, in an ominous sign in Kosovo itself, many Serb policemen in the Serb majority areas were pledging loyalty to Belgrade while separate Serb government and law enforcement bodies were being formed, this probably marking attempts to partition Kosovo still further.

As the new "candidate" for the Russian presidency, Dmitry Medvedev, said with unmistakable clarity, "We proceed from the understanding that Serbia is a single state with its jurisdiction spanning the entire territory."

It was, furthermore, Medvedev, already chosen as interim president by Putin, who traveled in the interesting period between Kosovo's independence and the upcoming Russian elections to Belgrade to sign -- what? -- amazing deals with Serbia on a gas pipeline and almost certainly on buying into the rundown Serb oil refinery in Pancevo.

Medvedev's pipeline deal for Moscow clears the way for the construction of the planned 550-mile South Stream pipeline through Serbia en route to Western Europe. Costs are reported to be in the area of $1.5 billion.

In addition -- and substantively expanding the energy ambitions of Russia toward Europe -- the president presumptive said that the deal to buy Serbia's state oil refinery, NIS, would be signed soon. Russia has offered $600 million for the refinery, with an additional $730 million to modernize the company.

But perhaps surprising for the publicly "progressive" Medvedev, who often speaks out on behalf of liberal issues and personal freedom, was the fact that he spoke out clearly on these deals with Serbia, saying that these energy treaties and agreements "form the foundation of energy stability for all of Europe in the future."

Let's repeat part of that: "for ALL of Europe in the future."

Perhaps it is not all that surprising for the man who is chairman of Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly -- and, yes, that has been his main job -- to take an interest in energy monopolization and its rewards.

What is surprising is that other recent E.U. members are also embracing deals with Russia and Gazprom. In the same week that the Serbian gas deal was consummated, Hungary also backed it; Bulgaria had already done so.

But then, "outgoing" President Putin -- who is scheduled to return as president when Medvedev's term is over -- is rumored to be "suspiciously wealthy." According to a remarkable article, "Putin's Choice," by respected scholar Zbigniew Brzezinski in the upcoming issue of The Washington Quarterly, Putin is reported by Russian sources to have a calculated wealth of billions, "most of it in shares of state-controlled energy enterprises ... including 4.5 percent of Gazprom."

The purport of all of this? To see that the genie of radical nationalism, released so tragically 20 years ago in Serbia, is threatening to pop up again in the Balkans. An angry Russia is attempting to use its energy wealth to move once again into Europe. And the West had better look out.

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