Bulgaria risks relapse into dependence on Russian Gazprom – POLITICO


SOFIA – It didn’t take long for Bulgaria to start slipping back into Russian orbit – especially when it comes to the contentious issue of gas dependency.

An interim government that took power this month raises fears that Sofia will revert to buying its energy supplies from Moscow’s export monopoly Gazprom after a recent push to break free from dependence on Russia, and echoes the Balkan country’s traditionally friendlier approach to the Kremlin.

It’s a sharp turnaround from Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s short-lived government, which fell after a vote of no confidence in late June. Petkov took an unusually confrontational stance on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, expelling more than 70 diplomats and spies and accelerating the search for alternative energy supplies, including via a gas pipeline across the southern border with Greece.

A new interim administration appointed by President Rumen Radev is, however, taking advantage of the gap before the general elections on October 2 to reconcile with the Russians. Radev, a former MiG-29 jet fighter pilot and air force chief, is widely accused by opponents of being pro-Russian and was originally nominated by the Socialist Party, a successor to the linked Bulgarian Communist Party in Moscow. In public, he is extremely elusive about his loyalty to the head of a NATO state: he has condemned the war but opposes Bulgarian military support for Ukraine. Last year, the United States objected to what Radev describes Crimea as “Russian”.

Caretaker Prime Minister Galab Donev’s administration has toyed with the idea of ​​resuming Russian gas imports since taking office, but things escalated this week when Energy Minister Rossen Hristov said Bulgaria would not I had no choice but to resume talks with Gazprom. In April, along with Poland, Bulgaria was among the first countries to see its gas supplies cut off by Gazprom, as Sofia refused to pay in rubles. Since then, Gazprom has closed and resumed gas flows to a number of other countries.

“Talks with Gazprom to resume supplies are inevitable,” Hristov told reporters in Sofia. He went on to accuse Petkov’s former cabinet of worsening ties with Moscow and making future negotiations “very difficult”.

“Don’t think it will be enough to call Gazprom and the flows will resume,” he added.

Earlier, Hristov stressed that the new cabinet does not intend to sign a long-term contract, but he did not rule out buying gas from Gazprom. “We are looking for alternative sources first, but if these supplies turn out to be insufficient, I will not be the minister who will let people spend the winter in the cold.”

Hristov’s statement came a day after Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova said payment for gas supplies should only be settled in rubles and she did not expect there would be problems resuming deliveries to Bulgaria if it showed the necessary ‘political will’.

Some political analysts doubted playing nice with Gazprom would lead to any good.

“Treating Gazprom as a reliable business partner at a time when the company has cut off gas supplies to a number of countries for no apparent reason seems pretty ridiculous,” said Daniel Smilov, political analyst at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think tank. “The government is campaigning, hoping to turn public opinion on the issue, especially ahead of the elections. It is too early to say whether they will succeed.

U-turn at the border

Perhaps the starkest example of the new Bulgarian administration trying to thwart Petkov’s efforts to free itself from Russian gas hubs in a long-running fight over launching an interconnector with Greece.

For years, the United States has urged Bulgaria to open a gas connector on the southern border that would allow Bulgaria to switch to different supply lines, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) landed in Greece or to suppliers in Azerbaijan, Central Asia and the Middle East. East. Sofia, however, has long dragged its feet on completing this cross-border gas pipeline in favor of deepening relations with Gazprom.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

In a clear break with his predecessors, Petkov tried to turn a new page by giving priority to the opening of the Greek interconnection, but the interim administration is now stirring up controversy by finding – once again – obstacles that could impede cross-border deliveries. of rivals to Gazprom.

Shortly after the interim government took power, Bulgarian media revealed that Donev’s government had found clerical motives to intervene on the interconnection. The Hristov Ministry of Energy explained that there were certain shortcomings related to the certification of the project.

Smelling a rat, Petkov suggested that the new government was about to delay the project. “The [gas] link with Greece is in jeopardy at a time when we are one step away from its actual launch,” Petkov posted on Facebook earlier this month.

The caretaker government denies accusations that it is following the old pro-Russia playbook in trying to block the launch of the interconnector, but stresses that Bulgaria is simply in dire straits as winter approaches. Bulgaria is indeed among the worst performers in Europe in filling its winter storage.

Hours after the new caretaker cabinet took office, Prime Minister Donev launched a crisis team to deal with “chaos and destruction” in the energy sector, which was tasked with working 24 hours on 24.

Hristov followed suit and described the gas supply situation as “serious, even critical”, saying that Bulgaria only has gas supplies until September. These statements came despite Petkov’s efforts to make Sofia less dependent on Russian gas. His government had started talks with Azerbaijan for additional supplies, secured the delivery of seven LNG tankers from an American company and accelerated work on the new gas link with Greece.

In the meantime, the caretaker government has announced that it will only accept one of the LNG carriers, citing the high cost of securing a slot at a terminal in Turkey and Greece.

Russia’s Old Friends

Donev’s caretaker cabinet takes over at a time when the country is facing runaway inflation and political instability. October’s election will be the country’s fourth since April 2021.

“The president and his interim cabinet are trying to make political arguments at the national level on a divisive issue like Russia,” Smilov said, the political analyst.

As well as showing willingness to resume talks with Gazprom, one of the key political appointees in Hristov’s ministry, which is tasked with shaping the country’s energy policy until the election, is known for its friendly stance toward Russia.

Lyubomira Gancheva, Radev’s chief of staff and former adviser, was until recently vice president of a fringe party that openly promoted her pro-Russian views. She has visited Crimea several times since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, at the invitation of local authorities appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, an article published on his party’s website analyzed Putin’s annual press conference, praising his leadership skills in handling the pandemic and for defending the Russian nation “at the most dark “.

Caretaker government denies accusations it is following old pro-Russian playbook in trying to block interconnector launch, but stresses Bulgaria is simply in dire straits as winter approaches | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One of the main priorities of the new cabinet announced by Radev was “to prevent the country’s involvement in the conflict”. Although he did not give further details, his more recent comments on the war have made some observers even more skeptical of his sympathies.

Radev was hesitant to welcome the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats, initiated by Petkov. Following Petkov’s expulsion of diplomats and spies, Radev said such an “unprecedented act” endangers “the energy sector, the economy and the people”.

“The Cabinet is giving mixed signals, but a big question remains: will they really deliver on their promises?” Smilov asked. “Will they welcome the expelled Russian diplomats back or adopt policies that will end up hampering Ukraine’s interests?

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