Opposition is growing in eastern Europe to a deal to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, which Germany and Russia are poised to sign Thursday. Critics say it's an attempt to change the political map of Europe.
The chummy German-Russian relationship is ruffling feathers
Russian President Vladimir Putin's one-day visit to Berlin Thursday to meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and hammer out a deal to build a pipeline linking Russia with western Europe has raised hackles in the continent's East.
"The new Russian-German alliance, which is today called an 'energy alliance,' is a plan to change the political map of Europe," former Lithuanian head of state and current EU parliamentarian Vytautas Landsbergis said in a statement.
By building the pipeline under the sea, by-passing the Baltic states and Poland, Russia would be able to use "monopolistic gas prices" to "influence the policies of neighboring countries," said Landsbergis, who led Lithuania when the Baltic country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Baltic states wary
The Baltic states are particularly wary of pacts between Germany and Russia, because they were annexed by the Soviet Union after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the USSR in August 1939. They regained their independence only in the early 1990s, and joined the EU and NATO last year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Germany's Gerhard Schröder were present when the companies behind the project put their signatures to the controversial deal on Thursday, paving the way for a gas pipeline to be built by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom and German companies E.ON and BASF.
The pipeline will stretch 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) under the Baltic Sea, to link the Russian city of Vyborg, near St Petersburg, to Greifswald on the northeastern coast of Germany.
Its underwater path means it will skirt the Baltic states, as well as Ukraine and Poland, which currently receive transit fees from Gazprom for allowing its pipelines to cross their territory on the way to the lucrative western European market.
The Baltic states and Poland wanted the pipeline to pass across their territory to ensure that Russia will not apply an energy blockade against them or try to manipulate prices.
Lithuanian Economy Minister Kestutis Dauksys said Thursday the deal undermined the Baltic state's energy security. "This agreement decreases our energy security, but Lithuania could not influence this decision," Dauksys said in an interview to Lithuanian public radio Thursday.
On Wednesday, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (photo) too slammed the pipeline deal, saying it was being struck "over the heads of Poland and the EU."
In July, Russian parliamentary deputies urged the government to increase the price of gas exports to countries that have moved outside Moscow's orbit.
The Duma, Russia's lower chamber of the parliament, approved a non-binding document calling on Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to increase tariffs for new EU members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Georgia, Molodova and Ukraine, which are ruled by pro-Western governments.
Russia has the world's largest natural gas reserves.
Russo-German ties face change
Putin's visit to Berlin on Thursday to meet with his friend Schröder is also being watched closely in Germany, given that the country is heading to the polls in a general election in a week.
Vladislav Belov, a specialist on Germany at the Russian Academy of Science, said Putin realized this could well be the last time he would see Schröder in office.
"Putin is supporting his friend Gerhard even if he understands objectively that he will no longer be either chancellor or vice-chancellor. ... All the signs are that the Schröder era is at an end," Belov said.
While Thursday's visit could see the close of the chapter of warm Schröder-Putin relations, opinion is divided on the future of Russian-German ties should conservative leader Angela Merkel (photo) take the mantle of German leadership.
Merkel grew up in the former East Germany and speaks Russian, while Putin speaks fluent German after serving with the KGB in Leipzig during the Cold War.
"Economic links between Russia and Germany will not change under Merkel because the two countries will be trying to fulfill their economic potential," Belov predicted.
Martin Koopmann, an expert with the German society for foreign policy (DGAP), fears troubled times could be ahead.
Merkel's Christian Democrats will "keep a certain distance from a Russia which places all its emphasis on power and less on Western-style transparency," he said.