French Accent

1 February 2012, 13:30

Gazprom is not the only agent or instrument of Russian energy neo-imperialism. Others include RosAtom, the state nuclear power corporation, and the ruble zone. A country that ends up trapped in the triangle of Gazprom, RosAtom, and the ruble as a reserve currency loses any real space to maneuver. In fact, even the greatest dependence on Russian gas is not a barrier—worse things can happen. No matter how often a country subsequently declares its European integration plans, it may eventually lack the resources needed to implement them. Alain Guillemoles, a French international reporter and author of Gazprom: the New Empire, has a personal view of the post-soviet reality. He visited Ukraine as part of “The European Experience: France,” a joint project by the French Institute in Kyiv and Ye Bookstore.

U.W.: Over the past four to five years, a number of large-scale journalistic investigations about Gazprom have been published both in the West and in Russia. This is a multifaceted issue that raises many questions: Which companies does Gazprom hire to procure goods and services, and why? How does it collaborate with foreign partners? What role does it play in Russian foreign policy? – Which of these questions does your book address?

I began this work in 2006. At that time, I can say, in France almost nobody knew what Gazprom was. When people use gas to cook or take a shower, they don't care where it comes from. There was no clear understanding of the energy situation. As a journalist specializing in Eastern Europe and Russia, I knew that Gazprom had played an important role in the Russian presidential elections, so Anna Lazareva and I decided to investigate it. Working within the context of Gazprom, we simultaneously told the story of Putin’s rise to power. We wrote a history of Gazprom from its creation until 2006. From 1989-1992, Viktor Chernomyrdin served as Gazprom’s Board Chairman and subsequently became Russia’s prime minister. Dmitri Medvedev was also the company’s Board Chairman in 2000-2001 and 2002-2008. There was a huge difference between these two periods. Under Chernomyrdin, Gazprom was almost a “state within a state” creating its own policy. Then Putin became president. He managed to seize power inside Gazprom and use it as a tool to increase his authority throughout the country.

U.W.: One stereotype in Eastern Europe is that France is a Russophile country. You mentioned the French hardly knew what Gazprom was until recently. Is there a correlation here—the less people understand the country, the more they like it? Today’s Russia is the country of Gazprom, not Dostoyevsky.

The French have a very clear idea of what Putin’s regime is. Our press closely covered the human rights violations during Russia’s parliamentary elections, even claiming that the results were rigged. Our press might even cover these issues more than the Ukrainian press does. It would be a mistake to mix up our cultural interest in Russia with the current political reality. We don't think of Putin as Russia. It's true that our companies do business with Russia; sometimes it's very cynical.

U.W.:  During one of your earlier visits to Ukraine you said RosAtom plays the same role in Putin’s foreign policy strategy as Gazprom does. Can you really compare the two in terms of their strategic significance for Russia’s imperial ambitions? 

Nuclear energy is also important. However, if you look at the percentage of nuclear energy used for electricity, you see that gas plays a much more important role in consumption. After the Fukushima disaster, there is less confidence in nuclear technologies, and many countries have stopped developing nuclear energy – Belgium, Switzerland, Italy. Gas is the main source of energy for the next 50 years. On the worldwide scale, the market for nuclear energy technologies is very small. There are very few companies that compete in it, including Korean, Russian and American players.  The German company Siemens has just recently withdrawn. I think it’ll be very difficult for Russia to gain any market, especially because the Koreans are very strong and can produce low cost nuclear technology.

U.W.: So RosAtom is the “new Gazprom” for post-soviet countries only?

It could be the “new Gazprom” for a country like Ukraine and former soviet countries in which Russian technologies are already used. Outside the FSU, RosAtom sells nuclear power plants to Iran and is trying to gain a foothold in the Asian market. Still, I don't see any real prospects for global expansion of Russian nuclear technologies.

U.W.: Ukrainians often have an inferiority complex regarding the energy sector. Objectively, they have failed to guarantee their energy security. What do you see as Kyiv’s mistakes in this respect?

Its greatest mistake is the overexertion of Ukraine’s energy resources. The same manufacturing results and quality of life could be achieved at a much lower cost. As a comparison: France, which has a comparable territory and even greater population, uses less than half the gas that Ukraine consumes yearly.
In my opinion, in order to strengthen its energy security, Ukraine needs to formulate a plan of action. Instead of being developed for the purpose of political and economic independence, its energy sector serves the interests of various oligarchs.

Ukrainehas huge uranium fuel resources, but rather than develop and extract them, it buys uranium from Russia. This is a paradox, but not the only one. For example, in France we have started producing biofuel from beetroots. 13% of the machine fuel used in France today is made with beetroots. When I discovered that, I immediately thought of Ukraine. Such technology could be used to meet the country’s own energy needs and could even be exported. Of course, the equipment needed to set up a biofuel production facility would be quite expensive, but the investment would pay off if Ukraine had its own energy policy.

U.W.: What is the predominant image of Ukraine in the French press? 

My colleagues are writing a lot about Tymoshenko’s case; it’s the biggest story when it comes to Ukraine. France was hugely interested in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. France and the rest of Western Europe suddenly discovered that there was such a thing as Ukraine and it wanted to join the European family. It was something new for us. But just a few years later, the Party of Regions won the 2006 parliamentary elections and Yanukovych was running the government. Western observers did not understand this. Why did Ukrainians protest in the streets in 2004 only to accept the same results a few years later? Now Europeans want to understand whether Ukraine really wants to be closer to Europe, and that’s a question only the Ukrainians can answer.

U.W.: Your latest book is a history of Jewish communities in Central Europe including Ukraine. Why have you embarked on this issue as a journalist?

This book was based on some reports that I made for La Croix. I was following the traces of Yiddish culture and Yiddish past. I researched cemeteries, synagogues and buildings. In Ukraine I visited Drohobych, Uman, Chernivtsi and Kyiv. It was forbidden to discuss these issues during the communist period. I wanted to find out how people came to terms with their own history over the past 20 years. Sometimes you have great initiatives to commemorate the past in Ukraine, but the state has not yet come to a consensus; it has not yet come to a common collective understanding of its history. I’m talking about the Famine or the Holocaust, Ukrainian Insurgent Army (i.e. UPA), or Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR). Significant events occurred in some places, yet there is no sign of what happened in the past. For example, two years ago I was in Lviv in a forest where the Nazis massacred nearly 500,000 people. It's a second Babyn Yar but there is no sign to memorialize it. The same thing goes for the many uprisings of the late 1920s. Ukrainian officials I’ve talked to have never been hostile or biased about memorializing the victims of genocide, quite on the contrary. But they would immediately switch to other priorities.


Alain Guillemolesworks as an international economics reporter for La Croix, a French daily. His focuses include Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. From 1994-1996, Mr. Guillemoles reported on Ukraine on a permanent basis. He wrote a biography of Bernard Kouchner in 2001; Meme La Neige etait Orange: La Revolution Ukrainienne (Even the Snow Was Orange) in 2005; Gazprom: le nouvel empire (Gazprom: the New Empire) together with Alla Lazareva in 2007; and Sur les traces du Yiddishland (Looking for the Yiddish Land, a Country Without Borders) in 2010. Also, Mr. Guillemoles writes detective stories under the pen name Renaud Rebardy.

This is Articte sidebar