Russian anger at Estonia over survey

Tony Barber in Brussels
Financial Times
Octover 16, 2007

Russia on Tuesday accused Estonia, its small Baltic Sea neighbour, of “rudeness” and violation of a United Nations maritime convention by refusing permission for a seabed survey linked to the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to western Europe.

“To use such tools, as the Estonian government did, is in my view pure politicisation, and done in a rude way,” Viktor Khristenko, Russia’s energy minister, told the Financial Times in an interview.

Estonia last month rejected a request from Nord Stream, a Russian-German company in which the state-controlled Russian gas giant Gazprom holds a 51 per cent stake, to survey the seabed off the Estonian coast in preparation for building the underwater pipeline.

Nord Stream is a central element of Gazprom’s international expansion strategy, because it is due to start pumping an annual 27.5bn cubic metres of gas to western Europe from 2010, then double that capacity to 55bn cubic metres from 2013.

The project has alarmed Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania because the pipeline’s direct route from Russia to Germany has stirred memories of historical suffering caused by Russian-German pacts at the expense of the countries sandwiched between them.

The dispute has broader implications for Estonia, which formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Its relations with Russia have been under strain since the Estonian authorities removed a Soviet war memorial from Tallinn in April, sparking riots among local Russian speakers and drawing protests from Moscow.

The European Union’s overall relationship with Russia has been going through perhaps its chilliest phase since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, and neither side is holding out much hope of progress at a regular six-monthly summit to be held in Portugal on October 26.

Mr Khristenko, who was visiting Brussels for talks with Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner, said the Nord Stream project remained on track in spite of the Estonian action.

“What makes me happy is that Nord Stream is on schedule as of today. The business plan has been completed. The contractual work with the suppliers is going on. In this sense, the project is in working order,” he said.

“What I don’t like is the difficulties that have cropped up along the sea route, in the absence of proper arguments. It seems to me that the position formulated by the Estonian government is not correct from a legal point of view, since it directly contravenes the Law of the Sea convention,” he added, referring to a UN treaty of 1982 that governs the use of the world’s oceans and seas.

“According to the convention, freedom of implementation for such transit projects is guaranteed, subject to certain conditions,” he said.