Based on the fact that three EU energy corridors pass through it, the Balkans nowadays represent a significant potential energy hub. Along with the importance of Central-South-Eastern Electricity connection and the North-South gas interconnections and Oil supply, the justification in proving the statement could unambiguously be found in the emerging Southern Gas Corridor, which will supply the countries of Central and Western Europe with gas, and is expected to soon be not only a geopolitical but also an important energy bridge connecting Europe with the wider regions of the Caucasus and the Middle East. However, the key external factors in energy geopolitics in the region at the moment include EU, Russia and China. Although all of these three take part in financing and building the energy structure and especially in Western Balkan countries, their focus on the energy sector is substantially different. While the EU is focused on infrastructure projects that can contribute to de-carbonization in the energy sector, China prefers mining and thermal power generation. Russia focuses on the gas and oil sector and currently dominates it, especially in Serbia. In spite of the fact that already in 2013 Russia, with its prominent position in the energy sector in the area, nominated it as a region of strategic importance in its foreign policy, the European Union has the widest range of instruments at its disposal to influence energy geopolitics in the region. Yet, its decarbonisation policy is opposed by China’s financial interference, constantly increasing in the region since the commencement of implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, predominantly in coal and lignite-fired power plants.
Towards the Balkans gas hub
From a regional perspective, there are five gas pipeline projects that are of exceptional importance. These are TANAP, TAP, IAP and Turk Stream gas pipelines as well as the floating LNG terminal project on the Krk island. The significance of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline is due to the fact that it is connected a the Greek-Turkish border to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) which will transport gas from Azerbaijan through Northern Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea to southern Italy, where it will connect to the gas network there. The TAP is considered of particular importance for Albania adding to its geostrategic position in the area. Furthermore, as part of the strategic Southern Gas Corridor, it could potentially reduce the gas dependence from the Russian Federation, satisfying the need of the countries to build cross-border gas infrastructure, which is particularly relevant in the cases of Serbia and North Macedonia. However, the Turk Stream which can be perceived as the Russian response to the Southern Gas Corridor could be also important from the region from the perspective of diversification. Especially the second route of this twin pipeline which extends from Turkey toward the South European and Central European Markets. (runs through Bulgaria Serbia Hungary, all way to Austria). As to the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline, disregarding certain allegations that it does not have adequate justifications, in combination with the LNG terminal at the Krk island it is considered as very important for the development of the region.
Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans in the medium of international competition
Russia, the world's second-largest producer of dry gas and the third-largest producer of liquid fuels, includes in its strategic options the intensification of energy cooperation with the European Union and through the Balkans, which ensures enhanced political cooperation with it and growing revenues in a stable environment. For Gazprom, the European market has an advantage over the Asian one mainly due to the fact that Europe offers a diversified market with many customers. Gazprom has already signed several contracts with European buyers reaching beyond 2035. Nevertheless, the so-called Balkan Hub should help the EU achieve energy security through diversification by diminishing Russia’s power. The Europeans, although "energy hostages" of the Russians, are supporting US plans to blockade Russia as much as possible so that there is a greater dispersion of their suppliers. However, the European Union till the moment had no alternatives that would reduce its energy dependence on Russia (2017: 40%). Increased gas flows from Norway and Algeria it can offer little given the growing demand from the European Union, which prioritizes "clean" oil-dependent energy. Additionally, due to the fact the reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean can be complementary to the wider supply system to EU member states, this region as one of the main fields of interest and competition in energy exploitation and transfer globally, has added value to the Balkans.
However the developments at the world energy chessboard are rapid and many "players" with the consequence of many plans to adapt to changing conditions, to cancel or give way to others. Hence, at the beginning of 2021, significant shifts occurred in the gas market in Southeast Europe. After the December 29th 2020 announcement of the Serbian president that Russian natural gas would start flowing via the Balkan Stream pipeline, allowing Russia to supply gas to central Europe by extending the Turkish Stream, Serbia have been offered the chance to strengthen its position at the energy chessboard of Southeast Europe. Although Washington has been urging Serbia to diversify its energy supplies and use American liquid gas shipments (those tend to be more expensive), defying U.S. calls to reduce its dependency on Russian energy supplies, Serbia which has so far received the Russian gas via Hungary and Ukraine, has officially launched a new gas link that will bring additional Russian gas to the Balkan country via Bulgaria and Turkey. Meanwhile, the EU and the Western Balkans (WB) will be able to diversify gas routes bypassing still-unstable Ukraine. By circumventing turbulent areas of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the BS hands Moscow more leverage on Kiev and Minsk. It also granted the EU a few aces in the hole in its relations with Turkey and the Eastern Neighbourhood. Besides Russia’s gas, the BS should accommodate liquefied natural gas (LNG) through Thrace, Azerbaijani gas and, hopefully, some local extraction in the Black Sea. However, a few hours earlier, gas began to be supplied to Bulgaria from Azerbaijan via the new Adriatic Pipeline TAP. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boris Borisov even spoke about the end of the Russian monopoly on the Bulgarian market. The additional event was the launch of the new floating LNG gas terminal near the Croatian island of Krk. US LPG arrived there by tanker and was then routed to the Croatian network, which is connected to the European one. With this move, Croatia not only almost eliminates its dependence on Russian gas but also becomes a major exporter of LNG to Hungary and Ukraine. And as if all these were not enough, due to the so-called Southern Gas Corridor, it was Gazprom who heralds significant competition in both Greek and Italian market.
Additionally, the following month, Serbia, along with Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Bulgaria and Hungary in a joint statement issued by their Energy Ministers, with a view to enhancing energy cooperation, have expressed their support to the East Med pipeline project, which represents a viable and strategic option for increasing the security of gas supply for the regions of Southeastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Central Mediterranean including Italy. It should not be neglected that already in 2018, Serbia was discussed as Italy alternative for East Med project. An alternative route, replacing Italy with Serbia, for the ambitious 5 billion-euro East Med natural gas pipeline, planned to carry southeast Mediterranean natural gas deposits to the EU via Greece, was discussed at a five-way meeting in Thessaloniki last between leading energy-sector officials representing Greece, Israel, Bulgaria, Serbia and the US. Moreover, with the publishing of the works contractor selection tender for the Niš- Dimitrovgrad gas pipeline, the European Union and Serbia are progressing a new big infrastructural project. A new gas interconnector will connect the city of Niš with the Bulgarian capital Sofia creating the possibility for Serbia to get access to natural gas supply from LNG terminal in Greece, and also from TAP and TANAP gas pipelines which are part of the Southern Gas Corridor. Thanks to the connection of these above-mentioned existing and planned gas pipelines, after the completion of the East Mediterranean project supply from coastal gas reserves of Leviatan field, that is Cyprus and Israel, will be possible. The projected capacity of the gas pipeline will allow for the transfer of 1.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. The EU IPA funds are granted on the Serbian side of the gas pipeline Niš-Sofia with an amount of EUR 49.6 million, money which Serbia does not have to pay back to the EU. In addition, the project will be financed through a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB), the bank of the EU, with an amount of EUR 25 million. The finalization of the gas pipeline is planned for the beginning of 2023. The new Niš-Sofia gas pipeline will boost the diversification of energy sources in Serbia and the Western Balkan region, and reduce dependency on one dominant supplier. This pipeline will also allow easy gas access for citizens and businesses of Bela Palanka, Pirot, and Dimitrovgrad – three towns that previously have not had access to gas. According to the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia and Minister of Mining and Energy, Prof. Dr. Zorana Mihajlović, " the gas interconnection Niš-Dimitrovgrad is a very important project which will secure diversification not only of gas routes but will enable diversification of suppliers, which will contribute to greater energy security for Serbia and the region as well."
Serbia’s as the new energy corridor
The EU's efforts to differentiate sources of supply should be considered primarily in light of resolving the energy security dilemma. As for Serbia, the importance of international energy policy issues in the 21st century is considered a high priority for the country. At the 18th Ministerial Council, Serbia took over the Energy Community presidency from Montenegro and expressed its willingness 'to give a new impetus to the development, or rather change, of the energy sector in the region'. During its presidency (01.01.2021 - 31.12.2021), Serbia will advocate decarbonisation of the energy sector towards complete neutrality in 2050, including relevant aspects of energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources, the establishment of a common market in the fields of electricity and natural gas; the establishment of mandatory stocks of crude oil and petroleum products; the development of energy infrastructure.
In the region of Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans, Serbia obviously got the opportunity to figure as a gateway and hub for energy transit. In that respect, taking into account the latest developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, and especially the status of Greece, the importance of energy cooperation with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean should be examined. Just as an example of the forthcoming opportunities, the possibilities of the project North Macedonia - Greece Interconnector which will ensure supply of additional quantities of natural gas from Greece and other sources that will be available through Greece, direct connection to the existing LNG Terminal Revithoussa and transit of additional quantities of natural gas intended for Serbia should be mentioned.
As already briefly analysed in energy security-related research of prominent authors, the new security architecture and geometry of Southeast Europe emphasize a few important geopolitical processes, such as the Germany tendencies to become official geo–economic and geopolitical prime mover along with the continuation of NATO advance towards Russian borders. Moreover, considering particular defence/security and economic geopolitical aspects we complete that especially the Central-Western Balkans Subsystem is clear about the competition between US-Berlin and Paris-Berlin. While the US aim NATO integration in the Balkan Peninsula in co-operation with France (which is claimed to be formalized by the French military/naval presence in Larnaca) in order to prevent "the Russian descend" on the Mediterranean, Germany, "discreetly serving" the Berlin-Moscow-Ankara interests, drives at the creation of a German energy axis. Furthermore, if these energy security intentions, the German extension of its economic and political influence into the zone of the Danube-Morava-Vardar axis is achieved, it is estimated that the country in cooperation with the other international land force, the Russian Federation, could be able to proceed with the implementation of a (South Stream type) Russian-Iranian-German energy corridor. Further German economic and financial intentions (creation of a future link between the Rotterdam and the Aegean hydrocarbon spot market) have been considered as a very important issue for an emerging Germany, (as well for the probability of increasing of European energy security. Although the stated assumptions could have indicated that Washington has lost the geopolitical game in the area, in addition to fore coming China’s involvement by using it as part of the "New Silk Road", the latest developments considering the Balkans energy security and especially in Serbia should not be neglected.
As SEE regains centrality in the geopolitics of energy, Serbia has acquired a big stake in the game. However, how will its government leverage this new position of the future energy artery of Europe remains an open question.
Pećinar A.-Doudoumis, G., Greece and Serbia as the Stability Factors in the Past and in the Balkans’ Perspective, Hellenic Institute for Strategic Studies, Athens 2020.