Pole-arization in Europe

Across the Western world, from Hungary to France, and even to the United States, 2016 has been a year of triumph for nationalist conservatives. Spurred on by the massive influx of Muslim immigrants to the West, the fear of terrorism and otherness has risen to the forefront of both American and European politics. Among these nations is Poland, the former Soviet Republic which has long been a beacon of hope in Eastern Europe. As a leading NATO ally, a growing economy, and the first republic to peacefully unburden themselves of Moscow’s chains, Poland has demonstrated to the rest of the Slavic peoples that it is possible to move on from Communist oppression and join in the prosperity of the West.
Many Polish citizens, however, have been left behind by the rapid growth brought on by Poland’s admittance to the EU in 2004. As may be familiar to European and American readers alike, most of the government and EU development programs went toward cities and the surrounding areas, leaving the countryside in its original dilapidated state. Rural Poland is by no means a third-world country, and yet the unemployment in Podkarpacie, one of Poland’s most conservative provinces, is at 13.2 percent compared to the 9.8 percent national average. As young workers leave their ancestral homes to find work in the cities, they bring with them their labor potential and their progressive views. The result is an increasingly impoverished countryside, with increasingly conservative views.
Jaroslaw Kaczinski’s “Law and Justice Party” promises to solve the nation’s problems. How? By barring immigrants, of course!
It is perhaps easiest to understand Poland’s conservative streak in terms of its southern neighbor, Hungary, whose Fidesz party has gone in much the same direction, though earlier and more dramatically. At its conception, Fidesz represented Hungary’s liberal, anti-communist youth. Eager, like Poland, to join the European community after the Soviet collapse, a sizeable portion of Hungarians put their support in the pro-integration, pro-trade Fidesz, and its leader, Victor Orban. Over the years, however, the stance of Fidesz has taken a sour turn. In 2010 Victor Orban became Prime Minister, after having served a term in 1998-2002. In that time his liberal, global agenda reversed, and Orban became an advocate for closed borders and limited EU meddling in national affairs. He voiced a sentiment that many Europeans had felt afraid to suggest: that immigration was a plague, not just on Europe’s growing economies, but on its mosaic of unique, age-old cultures. In 2015, Orban’s administration succeeded in erecting a double-layered barbed-wire fence along the southern border, complete with guards and water cannons to drive off any refugees who would come expecting to find prosperity in their country.
Kaczinski is among a host of European leaders to draw from Orban’s example, though in this case he controls an economy four times that of Hungary, in a location that is strategically imperative for NATO’s control of Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea. Speaking no language besides Polish and obsessed with the memory of his dead twin, Lech, Kaczinski took over the leadership of what was his brother’s party, clamping his grip on Parliament and molding the image of a quiet but fiercely nationalist eccentric. He has scarcely ever left his country, and relies entirely on cabinet reports to acquire information about the world outside Poland. Both the president and prime minister of Poland are widely recognized as Kaczinski’s pawns, though he himself bears only a middling political office. This party-boss approach has officials within and outside his country fearing for the future of genuine democracy in Poland.
Kaczinski has used his power to reconstitute the branches of government, effectively neutering the Judicial branch while purging the public TV and radio stations of any non-conservative messages. Though private stations do exist and claim a majority of the nation’s non-internet media consumption, Kaczinski’s use of public infrastructure to spread PiS propaganda is troublingly reminiscent of the USSR’s complete control over its public’s access to information. Coverage of liberal protests has almost vanished; the emphasis now lies on programs relating to Polish identity, like the Pope’s visit to the dominantly Catholic country this year.
Whatever the future may hold, it is certain that Europe, and, indeed, the world, faces an unprecedented dilemma: do we, as one world, come together to build connections, trade, and diversity on all levels, or do we remain, as the human race always has, in a scattering of isolated tribes?

Beware the Bear

In 2011, the EU started investigating the Russian oil company Gazprom for anticompetitive behavior. Russia strongly objected to this investigation and the subsequent antitrust charges. Now, it would appear that a resolution is on the horizon; however, should Gazprom and the EU come to an agreement, European dependence on Russia for energy would continue and potentially increase.

The European Commission has accused Gazprom of three main anti-competitive behaviors: linking gas and oil prices, unfairly altering prices by country, and limiting cross-border trade in Europe. By linking the price of gas to the price of oil, Russia can ensure there is always a significant amount of money coming from energy export taxes. When oil prices drop, gas prices rise, putting Europeans at a significant economic disadvantage. Gazprom has been charged with manipulating the prices buyers must pay based on their country: countries with little or no other options for gas supply or unfavorable opinions about the Kremlin are charged high prices, while countries with more options and better relations with Russia are charged much lower prices. Most European countries rely on Russia for 50% or more of their natural gas, with some receiving 100% of natural gas from Russia. Unless properly regulated, this system allows Gazprom to set whatever prices it desires. Finally, to really ensure Europe does not have a competitive natural gas market, Gazprom has also used trade agreements to ban buyers from trading gas outside of their countries’ borders and in some cases even restricting trade between buyers in the same country. These three tactics have made Gazprom a very effective, very powerful monopoly in Europe.

So, you may be asking: Why does this matter? Why should Americans care? Why did the EU let the situation get this bad? It matters because there are people in Europe whose well-being depends on Russia not getting mad at Ukraine and cutting off gas supplies to Europe in the middle of winter. That couldn’t happen? Well, that’s not just an oddly specific hypothetical; in 2006 and 2009, Russia engaged in so-called “gas wars” against Ukraine. In the middle of winter, the Kremlin halted flow of natural gas through Ukraine into European countries; in 2009, 80% of the gas Europe received from Russia came through Ukraine. By 2013 that number had dropped, so only half of Europe’s supply from Russia came through Ukraine, which was about 15% of Europe’s total supply. Gazprom is a state-run company. That means it answers to the Kremlin, so it can easily be used in political disagreements, and such drastic actions can have unintended consequences.

Why should Americans care? Well, maybe we shouldn’t. In fact, maybe we should be supporting Russia’s monopoly; our President-elect almost certainly will. However, let’s first look at this from a pre-President Trump perspective. America and the EU have tried to maintain positive relations over the years, and America does have a proud history of trust-busting. On top of that, Russia and America are wont to be on opposite sides of any given argument. So, for at least the past eight years, one would expect America to take a hard stance against Russia on the antitrust issue. For the next four to eight years, however, we will have a president who wants to get in bed with Putin; this could change the dynamics of global politics. Rather than condemning the Russian monopoly, Mr. Trump could back Gazprom and the Kremlin and distance himself from the EU. Some Americans may be okay with this, but for those of us who value our freedoms and our rights, this budding alliance is concerning.

Why did the EU let the situation progress for so long? Well, until recently, Europe didn’t have much of a choice. Europe relies on Russia for about one third of its energy needs, largely because it relies heavily on natural gas. American recently started exporting liquefied natural gas, or LNG; in 2015, we exported 28.4 billion cubic feet of LNG. Now that Europe has options, they can dare to anger the bear by fighting the monopoly. Europe has never been happy with their dependence on Russia, and in fact in 2014 Lithuania fined Gazprom $35 million for anticompetitive behavior.

But now, the European Commission and Gazprom appear to be resolving the case. The two have been working on finding compromises to allow a competitive market in Europe while not radically reducing Gazprom’s revenue. By not making any drastic changes, however, Europe will continue to rely on Russia for most of its gas.

To summarize, Gazprom has effectively cornered the European natural gas market, and while the case is likely to be settled, there is no guarantee of US support of whatever compromises Russia grudgingly agrees to. The support of America, a major world power, could cause disruptions to the order that the European Commission has worked so hard to create. But for now, the European Commission has (probably) ensured a secure and competitive gas market in Europe, allowing for more ideal prices. This was the main objective of the four year long investigation, but how long it will last remains to be seen.

*No piece on Gazprom would be complete without the Gazprom Anthem. Enjoy!*