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Opportunities for Russia and China in Greek Privatization

Released on 2012-03-02 18:00 GMT

Email-ID 5044727
Date 2011-06-09 23:25:49
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Opportunities for Russia and China in Greek Privatization

June 9, 2011 | 2000 GMT
Opportunities for Russia and China in Greek Privatization
Shipping containers at the Greek port of Thessaloniki

Greece's eurozone partners are demanding that Athens accelerate sales of
public assets and allow an independent agency, likely to be heavily
influenced by Germany, to lead the privatization drive. There is a risk
that Greece's ruling PASOK party could rebel against Prime Minister
George Papandreou and eurozone austerity measures. But the more
significant long-term issue is that Russia and China could use the
privatization to snatch up strategic Greek assets.


Greece's privatization efforts have become central for the new
approximately 65 billion to 70 billion euro ($94 billion to $101
billion) bailout package being finalized by eurozone member states and
expected to be approved by the June 20 eurozone finance ministers'
meeting. As the chief condition of the new bailout plan, Greece's
eurozone partners are demanding that Athens speed up its sale of
publicly held assets and shift the responsibility of privatization from
the government to an independent agency that would, sources tell
STRATFOR, have considerable input from foreign governments. In other
words, Greece needs to sell about 50 billion euros worth of public
assets by 2015 and on terms that satisfy Germany and other eurozone
countries, regardless of the preferences of the Greek state, which owns
the assets, or the Greek public, which depends on them for employment.

Greek privatization is a divisive issue that is threatening Prime
Minister George Papandreou's hold over his ruling PASOK party. There is
a danger PASOK could revolt against Papandreou and eurozone austerity
measures, putting Europe's bailout efforts into question and worsening
the sovereign debt crisis in Portugal and Spain. The long-term issue,
however, is the effect that such wide-scale privatization will have on
strategic Greek assets, such as ports and pipelines, which could find
interested investors in Russia and China, giving these powers a backdoor
into Europe's transportation and energy infrastructure.

Pain of Privatization

The new eurozone bailout plan has caused a political crisis in Greece.
The planned privatization of state enterprises means further layoffs of
public sector workers, and the Greek unemployment rate is already at
16.2 percent, more than 3 percent higher than a year ago. Employees of
Greek power utility PPC, telecommunication company OTE, and water
utilities EYDAP and EYATH have called a 24-hour strike for June 9 to
protest the privatization efforts, while the main private and public
sector unions, GSEE and ADEDY, will organize a general strike in the
country June 15.

Privatization, under most conditions, is painful. Inefficiencies built
into public companies due to political logic - such as redundant
employment, subsidized pricing of goods and services, and wage inflation
- are unraveled, to the consternation of a large segment of the
population. Furthermore, management positions in publicly held utilities
and businesses are often lucrative posts, which political leaders use to
reward party loyalists, or are often directly funded from the revenue of
the public companies. Thus, the workers facing unemployment and the
citizens protesting higher prices for goods and services are not alone
in resisting privatization; political elites, who are left without
important sources of economic revenue and patronage, also oppose it.
This is why, historically, successful and thorough privatization drives
require a political outsider in the country to take control and use
privatization to evict established and entrenched elites.

Papandreou and PASOK are not at all political outsiders. Although it was
out of power for five years before defeating the center-right Nea
Dimokratia in 2009, PASOK had led the country for 20 years beginning in
1974. Therefore, the greatest danger in terms of opposition to
privatization is not from the mounting protests and strikes on the
streets of Athens and other Greek cities, which are largely apolitical
and offer no real alternative to the ruling party, but from Papandreou's
own party.

The events of the next few weeks will be crucial for Papandreou's
ability to retain control of his party. Because PASOK's popularity has
declined significantly, early elections would not benefit its members.
However, Papandreou may be able to use the prospect of being voted out
of office to scare dissenting members of parliament into supporting the
new austerity measures. This depends on a number of factors, including
that street protests do not become violent or get out of control, which
is not likely.

Opportunities for Russia and China in Greek Privatization
(click here to enlarge image)

Opportunities in Privatization

A painful privatization drive for Greece, however, presents
opportunities for others to gain assets at potentially below market
value. German companies are interested in a number of Greek assets,
which is certain to frustrate the Greeks, who see the forced
privatization drive as a loss of sovereignty and a plot by Berlin to
cheaply acquire control of potentially lucrative companies. On June 6,
as the new bailout agreement was being negotiated, Germany's Deutsche
Telekom acquired a 10 percent stake in Hellenic Telecommunications (OTE)
for around 400 million euros, giving the German company a 40 percent
stake plus one share in OTE. Athens is looking to sell another 6 percent
of OTE to Deutsche Telekom, but the German telecommunication company has
said it would invest further only if given full control over OTE's labor
policies, which will enable significant layoffs - another example of how
privatization can lead to social unrest.

Russian and Chinese companies also are looking to use Greek
privatization for geopolitical gain. For China, Greece is an interesting
strategic entry point into emerging markets in Central and Eastern
Europe. China would use the Greek ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki to
bring its goods to the Balkans, former Soviet countries like Ukraine and
Belarus, and Central European EU states like Hungary, Slovakia and
Poland. Beijing's logic is that it could expand its trade in Central and
Eastern European countries where, considering the region's generally
lower income compared to Western Europe, the price point for Chinese
exports would be highly competitive. China Ocean Shipping Co. (COSCO)
made an investment in Piraeus in June 2010, leasing two container
terminals for 35 years at a price of around $5 billion. COSCO's interest
also was piqued when the Greek government announced plans to privatize
its entire 75 percent stake in the Piraeus port authority, and the
Chinese company wants to expand its investment both there and in

Russia is interested in using Greece to block a key European alternative
route for natural gas supplies. The European Union, which currently gets
around a quarter of its natural gas from Russia, is looking for
alternatives to Russian-dominated natural gas transportation pipelines.
At the forefront of the union's plans is the "southern gas corridor,"
which is essentially an amalgamation of several different projects that
would bring Azerbaijani and potentially Central Asian or Middle Eastern
natural gas into Europe via Turkey. Greece is an important component of
this plan since it rests on one route by which natural gas piped through
Turkey would enter the European Union - the other option would be to run
north through Bulgaria and Romania. From Greece, any proposed natural
gas pipelines would have to make the short jump across the Strait of
Otranto to Italy.

Opportunities for Russia and China in Greek Privatization

There currently are a number of proposed pipeline projects that would
constitute the EU southern gas corridor, of which three are central. The
Nabucco pipeline is supposed to take the northern route from Turkey to
Austria via the Balkan EU member states. Two other pipelines would take
the southerly route from Turkey into Greece - the proposed
Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Interconnection
Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI), of which the planned Poseidon offshore
pipeline is the underwater part from Greece to Italy.

The Greek government is directly involved in the ITGI project through
its ownership of the Greek public natural gas company DEPA, which is
collaborating with privately held Italian natural gas company Edison.
The key for Russia, specifically natural gas giant Gazprom, lies in this
particular southern corridor project. The proposed privatization of DEPA
is therefore an interesting opportunity for the Kremlin. Gazprom has had
its eyes on ITGI for years, negotiating with DEPA in 2010 to potentially
gain an ownership stake in the project. The deal seems to have fallen
through, with Gazprom now concentrating on the Greek plan to privatize
DEPA - as much as 32 percent may be up for sale. This would give Moscow
considerable influence when decisions are made about whose natural gas
ITGI carries, turning ITGI from an alternative to Russian natural gas to
an enabler of continued Gazprom dominance of Europe's natural gas

The key question is whether Greece's eurozone neighbors will try to
prevent China and Russia from gaining access to these geopolitically
strategic assets. It is assumed that the new privatization agency,
independent from Athens, would be heavily influenced by Germany since
Berlin is contributing the most cash for the Greek bailouts. Still, it
is unlikely that Berlin would look to ensure that Athens' strategic
assets are purchased by fellow eurozone member states and not by Russia
and China. Germany, an exporter of high-end, capital-intensive goods,
does not consider China's low-cost goods export competition, which means
there is no reason for Berlin to prevent Beijing's access to Eastern and
Central European markets. Second, Germany has a budding political
relationship with Russia, including a solid relationship between
Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas and Gazprom. It therefore is unlikely that Berlin
will do much to block Gazprom's designs in Greece either. Considering
that Germany is expected to have the greatest influence in decisions
made by the new privatization agency - and that Berlin's interest is
ultimately to get Athens to raise as much cash as possible - Berlin is
not likely to stand in the way of Russia and China in Greece.

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