Gas as Tool of Foreign Policy: Gazprom

The good times for Gazprom once seemed like they would never end. The world’s largest natural-gas producer, founded out of the old Soviet gas ministry, enjoyed sky-high gas prices for years. The gas flowed along pipelines into Europe; the profits flowed back. Gazprom began work on a $1.9 billion headquarters in St Petersburg and acted as a bottomless wallet for Russia’s rulers. Whatever problems it encountered, it could “drown with money”, as Natalia Volchkova of the New Economic School in Moscow puts it.  All this is now under threat. Its ageing gasfields are in decline. Thanks to America’s shale boom, gas is more plentiful on the world market. Gazprom’s European customers are realising that they have other choices. The prices it can charge are falling, and with them the firm’s prospects.

Years of easy money have made Gazprom fat and slow. It dominates its domestic market, producing 75% of Russia’s gas. It enjoys a monopoly over exports of the stuff. Until recently, it had a tight grip on western Europe, where it supplies around 25% of gas. It retains an even tighter grip on former Soviet-bloc countries in eastern Europe. For a long time, this insulated Gazprom from shifts in global gas markets.

Gazprom is not a normal company. It serves two masters. As a firm that issues shares to outside investors, it should in theory strive to maximise profits in the long run. But since it is majority-owned by the Russian state, it pursues political goals, too.  In practice, it serves one master more assiduously than the other. As President Vladimir Putin consolidated his power in the early 2000s, he built Gazprom into a main instrument of Russia’s new state capitalism. He appointed allies to top positions. He used Gazprom as a tool of foreign policy, for example by cutting off gas supplies to Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova during political rows.  Gazprom’s deep pockets have helped Mr Putin at home, too. It sells gas cheaply in Russia, so that the poor do not freeze in winter. Oddly for an energy company, it has bought television stations and newspapers, all of which are now friendly to the Kremlin. Mikhail Krutikhin of RusEnergy, a consultancy, says, “Gazprom has one manager: Putin.”

With friends in high places, Gazprom has enjoyed low taxes and privileged access to gasfields. But its costs are startlingly high…And some projects favoured by Mr Putin are of questionable economic value. For example, he is dead set on building a $21-billion South Stream pipeline between southern Russia and Austria via eastern Europe. This project has political appeal because it would bypass troublesome Ukraine as the main transit route for gas to Europe. But given weak prices and demand, it is “commercial idiocy”, says Mr Krutikhin. The opening in 2011 of Nord Stream, an offshore pipeline to Germany, was a diplomatic coup for Mr Putin, but it is still running far below capacity….

Gas on the spot market is often much cheaper than Russian gas delivered under long-term contracts… Because so many of its customers are tied to contracts, the full effects of the global gas glut on Gazprom’s bottom line will not be felt straight away….   The final threat to Gazprom’s old way of doing business is legal. An antitrust probe launched by the European Commission alleges that Gazprom is using its dominant position in central and eastern Europe to restrict competition and hike prices. If it loses the case, it could face a fine of up to $14 billion and lose the mighty lever of being able to charge some European countries more than others.  An adverse ruling might also threaten its strategy of trying to dominate the European gas market by owning both the supplies and the means of distributing them. Gazprom has quietly bought gas pipelines and storage facilities. It has tried to strike deals whereby it lends money to impoverished European utilities in order to secure their custom. If this strategy stops working, Gazprom will no longer be such a potent foreign-policy tool for the Kremlin….

Gazprom’s future may involve more robust competition even at home. Two domestic rivals have emerged: Novatek, a gas producer part owned by Gennady Timchenko, an old acquaintance of Mr Putin’s, and Rosneft, a state-owned oil firm led by Mr Putin’s trusted adviser, Igor Sechin. Put together, non-Gazprom firms now account for a quarter of all Russian gas production….

The other way to get gas to Asia would be via pipeline. The obvious destination is China, which sits on Russia’s doorstep and is potentially the world’s biggest market for gas. The two countries have haggled unsuccessfully for a decade. In February they revealed they had agreed to everything related to pipeline exports apart from the price. China has signed up to import gas from Central Asia, Australia, the Middle East and west Africa; almost everywhere, in fact, except Russia. China refuses to pay Asian prices; Gazprom won’t budge.

Gazprom: Russia’s wounded giant, Economist, Mar. 30, 2013, at 69

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