Vlasa Mircia, the mayor of [Pungesti, a] 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.
Thus writes Andrew Higgins
in the New York Times.
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
was really shocked,” recalled the mayor, who is now back at his office
on Pungesti’s main, in fact only, street. “We never had protesters here
and suddenly they were everywhere.”
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
, not the American Chevron.
Gazprom, a state-controlled energy giant, has a clear interest in preventing countries dependent on Russian natural gas
from developing their own alternative supplies of energy
, they say,
preserving a lucrative market for itself — and a potent foreign policy
tool for the Kremlin.
“Everything that has gone wrong is from Gazprom,” Mr. Mircia said.
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
to block threats to its energy stranglehold on Europe.
Before stepping down in September as NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen
gave voice to this alarm with remarks in London that pointed a finger at Russia
and infuriated environmentalists.
as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation
operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental
organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas —
to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas,” Mr. Rasmussen said. He
presented no proof and said the judgment was based on what NATO allies
what environmental groups denounce as a frenzy of paranoia have been
Russian actions in Ukraine. Russia’s president, the former K.G.B.
officer Vladimir V. Putin, has deployed a powerful arsenal there
dominated by stealth and subterfuge, first to annex Crimea in March and,
more recently, to foment an armed separatist rebellion in the east.
is crucial for Russia to keep this energy dependence. It is playing a
dirty game,” said Iulian Iancu, chairman of the Romanian Parliament’s
industry committee and a firm believer that Russia has had a hand in
stirring opposition to shale gas exploration across Eastern Europe. He
acknowledged that he had no direct evidence to support this allegation,
nor for an assertion he made recently in Parliament that Gazprom had
spent 82 million euros, or about $100 million, to fund anti-fracking
activities across Europe.
“You have to realize how smart their secret services are,” he added. “They will never act in the spotlight.”
has become a tide of protest against fracking in Eastern Europe, where
countries are most dependent on Russian energy, began three years ago in
Bulgaria, a member of the European Union but far more sympathetic to
Russian interests than any other member of the 28-nation bloc. Faced
with a sudden surge of street protests by activists, many of whom had
previously shown little interest in environmental issues, the Bulgarian
government in 2012 banned fracking and canceled a shale gas license
issued earlier to Chevron.
is already far less reliant on Russian energy than are Bulgaria and
other countries in the region, but a sharp expansion in domestic
production would allow it to export energy to neighboring Moldova and
blunt an important Russian foreign policy goal. Like Ukraine, Moldova
has tilted away from Moscow toward the European Union and has come under
strong pressure, notably through gas prices, to stay within Russia’s
economic and political orbit.
is the most effective weapon today of the Russian Federation — much
more effective than aircraft and tanks,” Victor Ponta, the Romanian
prime minister, said in an interview.
Cernea, a leader of a conservative political group in Bucharest that
has exposed the prospect of a Russian connection, said that while no
documents have been uncovered proving payments or other direct support
from Russia, circumstantial evidence shows that “Russians are behind the
protests against Chevron.”
protesters, she noted, included groups that usually have nothing to do
with one another, like radical socialists, some with ties to the heavily
Russian influenced security apparatus in neighboring Moldova, and
deeply conservative Orthodox priests. Russian news media, she added,
were curiously active in covering and fueling opposition to fracking in
Pungesti. RT, a state-run Russian TV news channel aimed at foreign
audiences, provided blanket coverage of the protests and carried
warnings that villagers, along with their crops and animals, would
perish from poisoned water.