Brussels is in another pickle of its own making. Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, and Sintez, a little-known Russian energy group, have emerged as the leading bidders for Greek gas assets put on sale to cut Athens's debt pile, the Financial Times reported. The European Commission won't be happy, but grumbling would be a bit rich. The fixation of Greece's international lenders on rapid assets sales has contributed to a lack of attractive buyers.
The pending sale of DEPA, Greece's state-controlled gas utility, and DEFSA, its grid operator subsidiary, is part of a €15-billion ($19.7-billion) disposals plan agreed with international lenders. The assets are thought to be worth about €1.5-billion. Big European utilities like Eni or EDF would be expected to pounce on the privatization of a nearby operator. But lurking fears about the state of the Greek economy – including worries about the country leaving the euro zone – seem to have kept the usual suspects away.
It's easy to see why Brussels and Athens might be concerned about a successful Russian bid. The Greek gas market is still in its infancy, but Gazprom accounts for about 80 per cent of Greek supply. If the state export monopoly scoops up DEPA, it would come as an exception to the recent trend of weakening Gazprom's influence in Europe.
Sintez, an unlisted power plant owner controlled by Leonid Lebedev, a mysterious Russian tycoon, insists it is an alternative to Gazprom. It says it wants to turn Greece into a transit hub for gas from Russia and the Middle East. Sintez might not face as much resistance as Gazprom – its main business is power plants, not gas fields. But the company is an unknown quantity, and only recently bothered to set up a public website.
Greece's European allies may fear that Sintez could be a token bidder, pretending to compete with Gazprom only to sell it the assets in a couple of years. And the European Commission could be wary of seeing the Russian export monopoly setting foot within the EU just as it becomes the target of a major competition probe. But as long as supposedly respectable investors fear about Greece's future, the parade of less-than-ideal ones is unlikely to stop.