Surprise, Surprise: Russia Sponsoring Foreign Environmental Protests

Put on your best Gomer Pyle imitation (“surprise, surprise, surprise!”) for this next story. We know that back during the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided substantial funding and organizational heft to the useful idiots protesting against Western plans such as the intermediate-range missile deployment in 1983. So given that Russia is now ruled by a former KGB officer, why should we be surprised, as the New York Times seems to be today, that Russia is sponsoring anti-fracking protests in Eastern Europe?

PUNGESTI, Romania — Vlasa Mircia, the mayor of this destitute village in eastern Romania, thought he had struck it rich when the American energy giant Chevron showed up here last year and leased a plot of land he owned for exploratory shale gas drilling.

But the encounter between big business and rural Romania quickly turned into a nightmare. The village became a magnet for activists from across the country opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Violent clashes broke out between the police and protesters. The mayor, one of the few locals who sided openly with Chevron, was run out of town, reviled as a corrupt sellout in what activists presented as a David versus Goliath struggle between impoverished farmers and corporate America. . .

Pointing to a mysteriously well-financed and well-organized campaign of protest, Romanian officials including the prime minister say that the struggle over fracking in Europe does feature a Goliath, but it is the Russian company Gazprom, not the American Chevron. . .

This belief that Russia is fueling the protests, shared by officials in Lithuania, where Chevron also ran into a wave of unusually fervent protests and then decided to pull out, has not yet been backed up by any clear proof. And Gazprom has denied accusations that it has bankrolled anti-fracking protests. But circumstantial evidence, plus large dollops of Cold War-style suspicion, have added to mounting alarm over covert Russian meddling to block threats to its energy stranglehold on Europe.

The Times story goes on to report on how the first nation to see this apparent organized effort was Bulgaria, which imposed a nationwide ban on fracking two years ago. Alex Alexiev and I reported on Russian intrigue against natural gas development in Eastern Europe a year and a half ago:

The Cold War is now so over that it might as well be grouped with the ancient ice ages, but there is one echo rolling across Europe from East to West: the Russian attempt to dominate the natural gas market on the European continent. As the energy sector accounts for 25 percent of Russia’s economy, any large changes in energy markets present major challenges for Vladimir Putin. Those old enough to recall the Soviet gas pipeline controversy of the early 1980s — a high-profile fight of the Reagan administration to deprive Moscow of hard currency — are right to have a feeling of déjà vu, as Putin’s motives transcend honest commerce. . .

Since natural gas and oil are Russia’s principal export commodities, the prospect of newly abundant oil and cheaper gas outside of Russia is a grave threat to Russia’s economic and political might in the region. Russia can’t do much about global oil trends, but Putin and the state-controlled Gazprom are doing everything they can to throttle new gas development in Eastern Europe, rerunning the same kind of behind-the-scenes propaganda against shale gas that the KGB ran against new NATO missiles back in the Cold War. Propagandists in Russia are promoting every translation possible for the message fracking=bad.

Good to see the Times catching up on things.  The really interesting story to chase down is to see whether Russia (or any other foreign interest) is somehow supplying funds for American environmental opposition to fracking and the Keystone pipeline.  They may not need to since our homegrown useful idiots will do it for free.

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