East European countries regard the Russian-German agreement to build a gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed with misgivings. Though it is far cheaper to build an overland pipeline through Lithuania and Poland, the North European Gas Pipeline Company (NEGP) will directly link Russia and Germany, bypassing transit states. The 1,200 km long seabed pipeline from Vyborg to Greifswald will allow Moscow and Berlin to cut off gas supplies to the countries lying between Germany and Russia if they should ever wish to. This has prompted some to compare the NEGP gas deal to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In addition to the geopolitical objections there are serious environmental objections to building a pipeline on the seabed.
Last week the Estonian website Syndicate of Common Sense published an article which suggested an easy way to thwart the NEGP. Estonia and Finland only need to reassert their rights to the Baltic seabed. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea every country has the right to extend its seaborder to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from their shore or outermost island. The Gulf of Finland between Estonia and Finland is so narrow that the countries cannot utilise their maximum 12 mile area without colliding. In this case the border runs right through the middle.
In 1994, however, Estonia and Finland signed a bilateral treaty [pdf] in which they both gave up 3 miles from that middle line, so as to create a 6 mile wide international seaway in the Gulf of Finland: “In the Gulf of Finland, the outer limit of the territorial sea shall at no place be closer to the midline than 3 nautical miles.” This seaway leads to the Russian waters near the city of St Petersburg. That is where the NEGP will start, running on the seabed in the international zone between the waters of Finland and Estonia.
Under the terms of the 1994 treaty both Tallinn and Helsinki can unilaterally revoke the agreement with 12 months’ notice. If one of the countries decides to do so, this would leave the international seaway only 3 miles wide, beginning from the midline on the side of the country that has not revoked the treaty. If the two parties reassert their full rights, the seabed border would again be on the midline between the two countries.
Hence all that is needed to block the construction of the seabed pipeline between Russia and Germany is a diplomatic decision from Tallinn and Helsinki. This would make Estonia and Finland the only sovereign powers over the seabed in the Gulf of Finland. As a result Russia would not be able to construct anything on the seabed without permission or without complying with specific terms.
Though this would be a very straightforward way to block the German-Russian NEGP plans, I doubt whether it will be done. I do not know about Finland, but I doubt whether the governing parties in Estonia have the guts to make such a bold move, which would upset both Russia and Germany, the most powerful EU member state. However, when the issue of the pipeline is raised let no-one say that nothing can be done to force the Germans and Russians to take into account the concerns of the Baltic and East-European nations. The whole project can be stopped with almost no effort– all that is needed is the guts to do it.
Schröder Exchanges Berlin for Kremlin, 14 December 2005