May 10, 2009

Observations about the administration of EU Structural Funds (in CEE)

By Lucia Kurekova

The experience of several old(er) EU member states shows that the EU structural funds are an important developmental tool for the less developed parts of Europe. In relation to the administration of the EU funds, Slovakia has recently been dealing with the so called ‘notice board tender’ (nastenkovy tender) which is an appalling case of the fraud of EU structural funds along party cronyism lines connected to the Ministry of Development and Construction and the Slovak National Party. The scandal broke out in full speed already last October but it was not until Brussels blew the whistle loud enough, threatening to stop the flow of the EU funds to the country, that some political accountability and redress were taken. What is interesting about the notice board case is the fact that the irregularities were pointed out very early on by a member of the Monitoring Committee for the Operational Program Technical Assistance 2007-2013 in the framework of which the tender took place. Rather than discussing the controversiality of the politics of the above developments, I would like to talk about Monitoring Committees which is a mechanism that allows scrutinizing the ways of EU funds allocation, but due to various reasons is not used to its fullest potential.

Monitoring Committees (MCs) are organs that exist alongside each Operational Program (OP) in every EU member state. The existence of MCs is stipulated by the Council Regulation (EC) 1260/1999 which defines basis principles on which it should be organized. However, an individual Ministry that runs the OP and to that related MC (Managing Authority) has much discretion in respect to the composition of the MC, the execution of its roles and the level of internal democracy. Because the MC is required to have members from local and regional governments but also representatives from the civic sector, one of important potential side-effects of the MC lies in the establishment of partnership principle. The general idea behind the work of the MCs, however, is to create national-level mechanism of accountability and control over the management and distribution of EU structural funds. The MCs usually meet several times a year. The minutes from the meetings are normally available publicly on the web pages of particular OPs. In the case of ‘notice board’ scandal, the minutes from June 2008 provide evidence of how a representative of the NGO sector in the MC demanded more information about the tender and was silenced by the Chair.

As part of a research project conducted at CEU, I had a chance to inquire into how a particular MC which distributes finances from the European Social Fund in Slovakia functions and I would like to share with you a set of general findings. The research revealed that the perceptions about the functions of the MC and understanding of what ‘monitoring’ means differ widely among the members of that MC. It was interesting to discover that the members seem to have internalized some of the not necessarily transparent aspects of how the MC functioned, which included non-accessibility of the minutes from their meetings to public. Generally, the members were not in favor of revealing what the problems and deficiencies in the administration of the ESF were to the wider public, justifying their stand on the grounds of disinterest on the part of the public and/or incapability to understand complex processes of EU funds administration. For most of them, efficiency (allocating as much funds as possible) seemed to be more important than transparency. Surprisingly, however, this relative stealth co-existed with a great degree of internal critique in respect to the Managing Authority from the non-governmental side but also from the other ministries that were members of the MC.

For the non-governmental members, the presence in the MC has proven crucial in lobbying for the interests of the groups of society they were representing and for most of them, unfortunately, that is how far their input into the monitoring part went. Interestingly, some members pointed out that the rate of activity and substantive input of the representatives from non-governmental sector has decreased with time and is generally much lower in the second programming period than it was in the first one (2004-2006). Nevertheless, part of the NGO sector took their potential effect in MCs seriously and proactively addressed the government when the MCs for the new programming periods were being created. The government responded in a very lukewarm fashion to the proposals of NGO sector for independent nominations to the MC and in several cases the ministries selected members of (marginal) NGOs with favorable leaning towards the current Slovak government, proactively ‘preventing’ problems that might arise by too active scrutiny from the more critically tuned NGOs.

In sum, it seems that while the MCs have the potential to be a tool of effective control over the administration of the EU funds and to connect different levels of the society, it is not fully utilized towards making the EU funds work better, with greater transparency and more efficiently. It seems that in this instance clearer and more specific guidelines on the part of the EU regulation in respect to the rules of the composition of Monitoring Committees could actually serve well. Making Monitoring Committees real watchdogs over accountability, control and dialogue leading to greater efficiency and transparency should therefore become a real effort.

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May 7, 2009

Philosophy, hope and crisis

by Lucia Kurekova

If you felt some disillusionment or even depresion after reading a recent post in The Economist about the world economic crisis dubbed "A glimmer of hope", perhaps you will find appealing (or even inspiring) the opinion piece by Alain de Botton in the last week Financial Times issue in which he tells us what we can adopt from the Roman Stoic philosophy and Christianity when dealing with crisis. Enjoy both.

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May 6, 2009

Two new books on energy in Central Europe

By: Andrej Nosko

The following review was originally published in the CEU Political Science Journal Vol. 4, Issue 2, April 2009.

Balmaceda, Margarita M.: Energy Dependency, Politics and Corruption in the Former Soviet Union: Russia’s Power, Oligarch’s Profits and Ukraine’s Missing Energy Policy, 1995-2006. London: Routledge, 2008, 222pp; includes tables, maps, ISBN: 978-0-415-43779-0 (Preview at
Orbán, Anita: Power, Energy, and the New Russian Imperialism. Praeger Security International, 2008, 264pp, includes tables, maps, chronological timeline, ISBN: 978-0-313-35222-4

The year 2009, unsurprisingly, started with a traditional gas row between Ukraine and Russia. What was surprising, however, was that it was not only a mild nuisance as in prior years. This year, for the first time in the 40-years history of gas trade between Russia and Europe, there was no gas coming from Russia through Ukraine. As a result of dependence on the single supplier, and the single supply route, for the first time in history two EU member states, Bulgaria and Slovakia, were on the brink of a comprehensive blackout. Politicians in the affected countries were competing in blaming either Ukraine or Russia, or those more diplomatic blamed them both. Blame helps no one's understanding of the problem, and it always takes two to tango, not only in the Russian-Ukrainian energy relations, but also in the wider post-socialist-bloc energy dependence. Students of Central Europe who want to understand how Russia and her former vassals in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have been dancing now have a unique opportunity to find answers to these questions in two books published last year.

Two knowledgeable experts on the CEE region, Margarita Balmaceda, associate professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University, and an Associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University (PhD from Princeton University); and Anita Orbán, director of Constellation Energy Institute in Budapest, (PhD from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston), in their books provide complementary views on the underlying aspects of energy policy in the region. These two books are excellent guides not only for students of international relations or transition studies wanting to understand energy policy in CEE region, but also for policymakers, journalists, or practitioners in the energy business and PR companies.

There are two major questions to the post-socialist tango. First, how is it possible that these countries, which share part of their history, large sections of energy infrastructure, and set out on the path of transition at around same time, differ so much in how they manage their energy dependency? Why some are very picky about dancing with Russia, while others dance just like Russia wants them to? Second, why is it that Russia has been more assertive in this dependence tango at some times and not others? At times being very pushy about dancing in Central Europe, while at others minding just its own business? Answers to these questions are not only relevant to understanding relations between Russia and Ukraine, which is the focus of Balmaceda’s book; or relations between Russia and Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, analysis of which is offered by Orbán. Answers to these questions can help us not only for better understanding of post-cold-war (some say resurgent) Russia, but these answers help us also to understand the broader intricacies of post-socialist transition east of Berlin.

The presented books, despite using different cases and different theoretical approaches are exceptionally complementary in tackling these questions. Orbán on the case of economic relations between Russia on the one side and Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland on the other, focuses on the reasons why Russia, through its energy companies, succeeded in moving into Central Europe in certain times, while not in others. Since she argues that for Russia today the primary means to achieve power in international relations is through its energy companies, this perspective focuses primarily on explaining the conditions for the outcome of Russian foreign policy through economic means. She thus provides analytical means for understanding temporal variation in the relation of dependency in the theoretical context of neoclassical realism.

Balmaceda, on the other hand, using a modified institutional approach, analyzes effects of the domestic political circumstances on the management of Ukraine’s energy dependencies on Russia. The puzzle that she researched evolves around “domestic factors that stand behind Ukraine’s continued energy dependency on Russia and its apparent inability to escape it.” Balmaceda criticizes the state-as-actor perspective, which is traditional to realism, (and is modified by Orbán to include perception of elites), and offers an incentive to rethink both interest representation and policy-making in the post-soviet transition. Balmaceda points out that it is not sufficient to look at policy-making only in terms of ‘state’ vs. ‘private’ but the role of specific interests and actors should be analyzed especially in the post-soviet transition.

Orbán looks at states as influence maximizers, guided by the perceptions of their elites. Balmaceda does not question the final outcome that Orbán offers, but goes deeper and opens up the black-box-of-state for further analysis through focusing on the internal interest formation, and cross-border elite collusion, which is unthinkable in the classical realism school. While Orbán’s perspective explains well the perspective of Russia’s foreign policy goals and its variation on the side of Russia, it does not aim to explain the responses of target countries. Therefore, reader might be wondering, why is it that Russia’s foreign policy outcome in, for example Slovakia, was 1 out of 2 times Russia-friendly, even if the government was “Russia-skeptical” and the outcome was not necessarily in the interest of influence maximization for the Slovak state? The analysis offered by Balmaceda in the case of Ukraine offers a good explanation of why Ukraine was unable to rid itself of this dependency. Through extrapolation, this analysis also offers an opportunity to understand why ridding of Russian influence in the energy sector was such a rare incidence among former socialist countries.

According to Orbán’s argument, Russian energy companies expand in Central Europe, if and when Russian elites perceive Russian influence in the world as being low – giving them the will to act – and the Russian state has enough power to mobilize the necessary resources, thus providing Russia with the ability to act. Orbán tests this hypothesis during six periods, between 1991 and 2008. In the three empirical chapters, she walks the reader through six periods of Russian activity in three countries – offering together 15 events, which form the core cases. Balmaceda’s argument, on the other hand, is that the domestic political system of Ukraine created certain “windows of opportunity” for access to energy rents, which created also incentive for the involved actors to preempt changes in the system of existing suboptimal institutions that were intertwined with rents distribution. The central role in the interest formation in Ukraine, according to Balmaceda, was played by competition, struggle and accommodation between intra- as well as inter-state economic groups. This happened in the context of conflict and reintegration-attempts with Russia, over access to energy markets, supplies, transit and distribution of economic rents. The surprising conclusion that Balmaceda offers is collusion between the Russian and Ukrainian elites, which explains why Ukraine was unable to form independent energy policy, and set out on a genuine reform path. Her detailed account of the 2006 gas row sheds strong light also on the Orange-revolutionaries. After reading the accounts of gas trade and allegations of involvement of the highest political leaders, (which have also partly reemerged in the context of the 2009 gas row) the sweet ideals of the anti-corruption ticket of the pro-western Orange revolution have a somewhat bitter aftertaste. It is nonetheless important to note that author is cautious and presents publicly available allegations and supports the claims with many references to original sources in Ukrainian media or publicly made proclamations.

The research design Orbán employs is simple yet robust. The effects of the independent variable of relative distribution of power in the international system are catalyzed by two intervening variables. The domestic perception of the international system, measured through the analysis of a wide-array of media sources, and interviews; and the level of state power available for the country’s leaders, operationalized as state’s ability to collect recurring revenues, as second. She chooses to use share of tax revenues on total GDP to measure this variable. The dependent variable of the book is foreign political outcome, which is operationalized as the behavior of Russian energy companies in Central Europe. The Russian strategy, as Orbán argues, was in securing the monopoly position in the energy supply; this by first entrenching in the role of the monopoly supplier, and second by preventing diversification attempts. Russian companies were trying to gain leverage over the whole value chain through controlling companies with import rights, transmission owners, and wholesale companies, or refineries in the case of oil.

When summarizing Orbán’s results, Poland can be portrayed as Russia’s ‘bad neighbor’ with only 50% of Russian attempts to gain stronghold in its energy sector succeeding, followed by a 75% success rate in Slovakia and Hungary. Orbán further differentiates the results according to the stance of the domestic government. Thus, if a Russia-skeptical government is ruling the country, Russia still had 50% chance of getting its goals in Slovakia, while it had nil chance in Hungary, and only one out of three attempts could succeed in Poland. What is lacking in Orbán’s book, and the theoretical school that she is embedded in, is the explanation of the internal mechanics of the domestic receptiveness towards Russia. This is precisely where Balmaceda fills the gap.

Balmaceda operationalizes her variables carefully, offering a precise working definition of energy dependency (p. 16) as well as management of it, which she conceptualizes as way of handling energy supply diversification, organization of energy trade with main supplier, and energy-policy-making. The primary interest aggregators that she works with are the “Business-Administrative Groups” (BAGs, sometimes referred as ‘clans’). Balmaceda’s analysis is organized into three parts. In the first part, she sets the context and frame of reference of the interest formation, focusing on the role of energy in the relations of Ukraine with the main international partners, including EU and Russia, and provides the historical evidence for her argument. In the second part of her book, she further analyzes president Kuchma’s period and introduces the reader to the intricacies of the energy dependency rent system from 1995-2004. In the third part of the book, Balmaceda looks at energy policy and energy dependency after the Orange revolution. In the final chapter she focuses on an in-depth analysis of energy policy during Yuschenko’s rule.

An important policy conclusion that Balmaceda comes to is that the international community should not look at the problem in terms of Ukraine vs. Russia, but rather as a problem of corruption and lack of transparency. As a way out Balmaceda suggests eliminating innate features of the post-soviet energy market, such as lack of transparency, attractive arbitrage opportunities, difference between near-abroad export prices and lack of liberalization of domestic markets. She further notes Russia’s refusal to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty and her control over the exports of energy among additional problems. Finally, (p. 143) she puts energy in the context of transition, pointing out that raising energy prices and the pressure on the reform of the energy-inefficient economy could be a blessing in disguise. The feasibility of this is, nonetheless, even more questionable in the current economic situation in Ukraine.

The conclusion offered by Orbán is somewhat more alarming and sobering. She vividly demonstrates the relationship between the Russian corporate activity and the Kremlin’s foreign policy. In addition to Moscow's already observed attempts to build-up a neo-mercantilist empire in the so called near-abroad, as recently demonstrated also by the adventure in Georgia, she presents persuasive evidence of similar strategies pursued in the eastern part of the EU and NATO.

Both books are quite ‘readable,’ with sufficient theoretical basis, but not too much to ‘put-off’ the less theory-informed policy practitioners. In order to keep the depth of theoretical discussion, Orbán even offers an extension of it via 43 pages of endnotes. Both books are well illustrated with a number of lucid maps to walk even an untrained eye through potentially confusing meshwork of pipelines crossing the region. The annex of Orbán’s book also includes chronologies for her case countries, listing the most important political, and economic milestones. What might be surprising is that 68 pages of endnotes accompany Balmaceda’s book, which is all together 145 pages long. This only further exemplifies the level of detail with which she researched her case.

There are only few, forgivable beauty spots that one can notice. In Orbán’s book, due to perhaps a typographic mistake, the introduction of the main argument confuses reader, when in the introductory chapter (p. 5) the main hypothesis is introduced reversely from what the she later illustrates in a table (p. 32), and what she proceeds with testing, and concluding. It is also regretful that many of the hyperlinks listed in Balmaceda’s endnotes do not work, which might be partly because they are ‘dynamic’, stretching over many lines, and thus more susceptible to typographic errors. The solution, useful also for other authors wishing to list the complete uniform resource locator (URL) to the electronic source they are citing, could be in using ‘URL shortening services’.

Overall, both books are well-researched works, enriching not only understanding of energy policymaking in CEE, relations between Russia and its western neighbors, but also transition studies in general. Both books significantly contribute to their respective theoretical schools, while also generating new research avenues to be followed. Either on the side of neoclassical realism, where Orbán’s research design could be replicated in the so-called near abroad, and tested on the case of Ukraine, or Balmaceda’s research design which could be tested on the cases of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

It is also pleasantly surprising for a well-informed student of CEE region to find two books presented in English that master the local cross-country context and empirical evidence with such a high level of detail and insight. Both of these books not only offer ready-to-use policy advice for the governments of the case-study countries, EU as well as USA, they also stand as an excellent reference for journalists covering Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia. Finally, thanks to their academic rigor, well-grasped theoretical context, and empirical richness, they are an indispensable resource for students and researchers of economic relations in the CEE region during the first two decades of transition.

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