Greece has historically straddled the divide between EU membership and maintaining cordial relations with Russia in a less tumultuous manner than certain other countries in the region. It has, for the most part, managed to remain in relatively good standing in each of these relationships. More recently, however, with some dramatic turns in Greek politics over the past several years, tensions have risen with respect to Russias agenda in its relationship with Greece and whether the country might, as some have feared in the past, be looked at by Moscow as a means to disrupt Western consensus within the EU.
The countrys robust economic and financial ties with Russia have traditionally focused on the energy and transportation sectors, although, more recently, offers of financial support from Russia have played prominently in the debt crisis afflicting the country and its discussions with the IMF and its partners in the Eurozone. In April 2015, in the midst of these negotiations, Greece signed a trade deal with Russia, and Moscow said publicly that it would take advantage of the situation to acquire hard assets in Greece and a commitment to Turk Stream.
In a May 2015 meeting between Putin and Tsipras, Moscow reportedly stated that it was ready to provide financial assistance in return for Greeces Turk Stream participation. Although the Western fear of a Russian bailout loan to Greece did not materialize, there was a queasy feeling in the region that the two countries had an understanding about such a loan, which some posited was among the reasons Greece had acted with such bravado.
In the 2000s, Moscows attention was directed primarily on attracting the country as a regional transport hub for Russian oil and natural gas infrastructure. The Kremlin pushed Greece to sign agreements on projects, such as the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline (which would have transported Russian crude from Bulgarias Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek port city of Alexandroupolis) and the now-defunct South Stream natural gas pipeline, which would have been a major boost to Russias strategic positioning in the region.
Moscow also pressed Greece to feed a new pipeline being developed (originally to bring Azeri gas to the region, not Russian), called the Turkey-Greece-Italy natural gas interconnector, with Russian supplies. It even completely shut off the flow of gas to Greece in 2008 in an effort to pressure Athens to award contracts to Russian-controlled entities. The countrys 80% dependency on Russian gas has played prominently in each of these deliberations.
Excerpted Deals and Transactions:
- After fourteen years of negotiations between Moscow, Athens and Sofia, in March 2007 an intergovernmental agreement was signed for the construction and operation of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, meant to provide an alternative option for bringing Russian, Azeri and Kazakh crude oil to market, other than traversing the Turkish Straits. That December, an agreement designated the Trans Balkan Pipeline B.V. company to operate the pipeline, majority controlled by Russia. Although Bulgaria pulled out of the project, Moscow continued to press forward. The project could become significant, as it offers a way to circumvent Turkey (including the congested Turkish Straits) in the delivery of Russian oil to the international markets.
- As far back as May 2006, according to various Greek officials, including the head of DEPA (the countrys leading and state-owned natural gas company), Gazprom withheld the extension of the its natural gas supply contract in an attempt to extract major strategic concessions from the Greeks with regard to pipeline projects and even force Russian-connected companies into contractor roles.
- Prometheus Gas was established in 1991 as a joint venture between the Copelouzos Group and Gazprom to develop natural gas infrastructure and facilitate supply for Greece. Prometheus indeed managed to secure contracts for strategic infrastructure, including: a contract to develop natural gas infrastructure in Greeces Thessaloniki region; a contract to build a 55 km section of the Turkey-Greece interconnector pipeline; and an award of the right to sell Russian natural gas in Greece as well as the right to resell gas back into neighboring Balkan countries. The company controls a number of additional nodes of the countrys critical infrastructure.
- The Copelouzos Group has had a role in nearly every strategic energy project that has emerged in Greece over recent years, including: the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline project; the (now defunct) Turkey-Greece-Italy pipeline interconnector; the proposed Western Macedonia Branch of the Turkey-Greece interconnector; and via its subsidiary, Europrom Telecommunications, the company is involved in broadband telecom services. More recently, in November 2014, the Copelouzos Group, together with German airport operator Fraport, offered a 2 billion winning bid for a concession to operate Greeces 14 regional airports, although the ruling Syriza party has reportedly warned parliament that it may not ratify the deal. The Copelouzos Group, through its company Gastrade, is also participating in the installation of an LNG terminal near Greeces Alexandroupolis port (listed as a European Commission priority project that will supply the tri-border region).
- In June 2014, Russian Railways Company (RZD) and GEK Terna submitted a joint request to participate in the tender to privatize the port of Thessaloniki. The port is Greeces second largest, handling both cargo and passenger traffic. It markets itself as a gateway to the Balkans. Roughly 90% of Macedonias imported trade items transported on ship transit Thessaloniki port. This stake being sold would include the right to manage and operate the port until 2051.
- In 2012, Russia was also Greeces largest single source of crude oil (accounting for 33% of total imports). That same year, however, 56% of refined petroleum imports came from the OECD, with roughly 16% from Russia. As of 2012, oil accounted for 45% of Greeces total primary energy supply. The country currently has one existing oil pipeline, running from Thessaloniki to Skopje, Macedonia. The port of Thessaloniki is a strategic entry point for the country and the region (especially for Macedonia).