- Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer

In the Russian folk tradition, Dyed Moroz (Father Christmas) doesn’t give children their presents because they have been well-behaved all year. Instead, he responds to those who shout the loudest to catch his attention.

That may have been the reason for the headline, following South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad’s briefing this week, that South Africa intends to “talk tough” at the Group of Eight (G8) summit conference, which runs from Saturday through Monday in St. Petersburg. Pahad suggested that President Thabo Mbeki, who is attending as a member of the five ‘outreach’ countries – SA, India, China, Brazil and Mexico – will demand Russia and the other G8 members do more to maintain an Africa priority in global development policy. Pahad also suggested Mbeki should thump the G8 table for the lack of implementation, over the past year, of G8 promises to lift financial aid to Africa, improve the terms of trade for African exports, and support universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Mbeki has not had much success in catching President Vladimir Putin’s attention at their earlier meetings. But Putin is now scheduling his first visit to Africa in September. Although the visit has been postponed several times before, September 5 has already been fixed for Putin’s arrival in SA. Angola is also on the itinerary, but the other African stops are still uncertain; Morocco is a possibility. The first African visit of a Russian head of government in almost half a century will be the opportunity for Russia to address Mbeki’s Africa-wide agenda. But does South Africa have interests of its own, and which of them is on Mbeki’s agenda for Russia?

At this weekend’s meetings, Russia is presenting a revolutionary agenda that Mbeki and other African leaders should have every reason to support. This is a Russian new scheme for supplying, consuming and pricing energy – principally oil and gas, but also coal and uranium — to the world. Because this is meant to supersede the traditional arrangement for supplying and pricing crude oil through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC), those who benefit most from OPEC, led by the United States, have orchestrated a drumbeat of criticism of the Russian model, calling it an unreliable source of energy, and attacking Putin for using energy exports as a political weapon.

Media coverage of the G8 summit agenda, especially the ‘energy security’ priority which Russia has introduced, reflects this fight. The media have been (and will continue to be) a weapon for both sides. From the Russian point of view, however, the new energy supply model is not negotiable.

The emergence of this new strategy has been swift, but clumsy. Countries, international corporations, and their PR and media networks, which supported the OPEC model for Russia in the past – those, for example, who backed Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and who currently oppose Gazprom and Rosneft — are hostile to the new Russian energy strategy because, if it succeeds, it neutralizes the chances of long-term regime change inside the Kremlin. The G8 and other meetings are regarded by the Russian side as opportunities for such countries to change their minds, and redefine their interests.

The OPEC model has been limited to crude oil; the Russian model aims at covering both crude oil and natural gas supply. The OPEC model has been limited to regulating supply and price, according to the swing producer mechanism. Until now, this role has been played by Saudi Arabia, with its global lead in crude oil reserves, and in its flexible capacity to lift, pump to port, and ship. The Russian model aims to supplant the Saudis, emphasizing its global lead in gas reserves, and in barrel of oil equivalent (boe). Already, Russia exceeds Saudi Arabia as the largest producer in boe terms (13.3 million bbl/d boe, compared to 10 million bbl/d boe for Saudi Arabia); the largest exporter in boe terms (18.7% of global hydrocarbon exports); and the largest reserve base (16.3% of world hydrocarbon reserves boe).

From the Russian perspective, the Saudi role and OPEC model have benefited the US, which can pressure Saudi Arabia into opening the spigot to deal with supply emergencies; the US also pressures other oil producers, such as Libya, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Indonesia by military methods, diplomatic, and economic sanctions. In the Russian alternative, the US will be far less influential, and have fewer levers, commercial or military, to effect pressure on the energy suppliers. Russian arms and defence industry partnerships are on offer to relatively weak, intervention-prone energy producers in Africa and Latin America in order to offset US pressure.

In the OPEC model, the benchmark is Brent crude, priced in US dollars. In the Russian model, the discount and disadvantage between the Brent and Urals benchmarks will be reduced, and pricing will evolve toward a currency basket, including the rouble.
In the OPEC model, suppliers hold much of their cash and government securities in US-controlled institutions. In the Russian model, cash is held in the form of a currency basket, conversion from cash is sought into non-US assets, particularly in the European market.

In the OPEC model, investment in new energy reserves should be open to, and may be controlled by, US corporations. In the Russian model, strategic reserves should be controlled by national companies, state controlled champions, or by joint ventures in which Russian interests are in the majority.

In the US-backed OPEC model, national suppliers depend on US-controlled market intermediaries, traders, pipeline and shipping companies, and retail distributors for access to markets and point of sale. In the Russian model, in exchange for access to Russian energy supplies, there will be Russian state controlled champions in energy transportation. Russian state controlled corporations will also have investments and influence over trade and market retail networks.

The Russian model also extends to energy convertible coal, uranium, and other mineral resources. Through negotiations for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the US, Australia, Canada and other resource-exporting states have sought to gain unlimited access to search and development of Russian mineable resources. The Russian model rejects this, and instead assigns priority and equity control of domestic resources to national resource companies. The model proposes tradeoffs and partnerships in resource exploitation in third countries, including Africa.

The US-backed OPEC model assigns international priority to the Arab states. The Russian model assigns priority to the Central Asian alliance, including China, India, and Iran; secondarily to Latin America (Venezuela, Brazil); and ultimately Africa.

On this fundamental choice between the Russian and OPEC models, Russia is waiting to hear where South Africa stands. One thing is clear – SA’s dependence on OPEC for its crude oil imports has been growing. In 1996, 75% of SA’s oil imports came from the Gulf states, led by Iran. In 2003 – the latest year for which figures are available – this had grown to 78%. Saudi Arabia has also jumped ahead of Iran as the leading supplier. Nigeria is the leading African supplier of oil to SA, with 16% of total in 2003. Imports from Russia are possible, but have been negligible so far.

If it makes sense for SA to engage with Russia in the new energy supply model, Mbeki has his chance to say so this weekend. Until now, however, the president has not said what his energy strategy is.

Putin will be tell Mbeki and his other guests that Russia is offering a role (short of control) in upstream development of Russian energy resources. In exchange, he wants to agree on a reciprocal role for Russian state companies elsewhere, including the regional economic blocs that are represented at the G8 table — China, India, South America, and Africa. This framework creates a mutual interdependency to protect the energy partnerships that are formed from unilateral pressures or attacks of the US type — economic, political, or military.

The security of Russian energy supply is thus to be contrasted with the unreliability of US behaviour. In the short term, this Russian strategy also enables Russian companies to secure the capital and technology they need for high-cost, high-risk projects in difficult terrain. Reciprocally, the strategy offers access to stable supply and pricing of oil and gas to consumer countries, including diversion of energy transportation away from military pressure at chokepoints – for example, the Strait of Hormuz, through which most oil tankers sail enroute to SA. In its wars with Iraq, and its threatened attack on Iran, oil consumers are dependent on the US Navy to keep the Hormuz waterway open. They pay for this protection through the premium US oil companies charge for delivery risk.

For SA’s state energy company, PetroSA, the Russian model offers many opportunities, especially since PetroSA’s domestic reserves of gas to fuel the Mossel Bay gas-to-liquid plant are running out. “By 2009 or 2010 we must have decided what to do. We will either close, move somewhere else, convert to an ordinary refinery or find another gas field,” PetroSA’s chief executive Sipho Mkhize said recently. At present, roughly 10% of SA’s petroleum consumption comes from conversion of gas to liquids, while another 40% comes from conversion from coal.

PetroSA executives are regular visitors to Moscow, but they are reluctant to say what they have in mind for their energy partnership with Russia. The first sign of this was announced in April, when PetroSA took a 10% stake in a Namibian oil and gas exploration venture, alongside the Russian company Sintezneftegaz. There is considerable potential for joint ventures with the Russians in Angola, where LUKoil, Russia’s largest oil producer and exporter, is negotiating concessions; and in other African countries where PetroSA is also active; these include Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Gabon, Sudan, Mozambique, and Algeria.

From the Russian perspective, the scope for the energy partnership with SA is limited only by the imagination; or by countervailing US or European pressures, as rivals for the Russian model seek to maintain their traditional, colonial-era ties. Oil is not the only battlefield. SA companies have considered in the past, and could revive interest again, in partnering the Gazprom group, Russia’s largest enterprise, in the bidding for resource development and pipeline projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Expansion of a SA partnership with Alrosa, the primary state-controlled Russian mining company in Africa, was under negotiation in talks this month. Also, Russian interest has been expressed in partnering SA companies like Sasol in the development of coal to fuel conversion in coal-rich regions of Russia. And sources in the Russian uranium sector suggest there is the possibility of partnership between SA suppliers of uranium and Russian builders of nuclear reactors for power plant projects in third countries.

To the G8 summiteers, Putin has issued a challenge, which ought to be familiar to African leaders. “If we go back 100 years,” Putin told a French television interview, “and look through the newspapers, we see what arguments the colonial powers of that time advanced to justify their expansion into Africa and Asia. They cited arguments such as playing a civilizing role, the particular role of the white man, the need to civilize ‘primitive peoples’. We all know what consequences this had.”

Putin was responding to attacks on the Kremlin for not being democratic enough, according to the American model. But the Russian energy model is a counter-attack that is much broader in scope, and more fundamental. It is an invitation for South Africa, and other resource-rich developing states, to join in the challenge to colonial-style relationships in the global energy market.

Leave a Reply