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9th Dec 2022

Bulgaria tries to warm up Russia ties

  • Delivery of South Stream pipes continues despite Russia's statement the project is dead (Photo: south-stream-offshore.com)

Bulgaria is trying to warm up relations with Russia, amid iciness over its support for EU sanctions and its cancellation of major Russian energy projects.

Bulgarian deputy prime minister Ivailo Kalfin said he had an informal tete-a-tete with his Russian counterpart, Arkadiy Dvorkovich, on a trip to Moscow at the end of last week.

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It comes after a similar visit, last Thursday (5 March), by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who sought Russian president Vladimir Putin’s help to quell the chaos in Libya.

The West has largely isolated Putin, whose country is under EU and US sanctions over of its annexation of Crimea and its support for Russian proxy fighters in east Ukraine.

“The purpose of my visit was to unblock our relations,” Kalfin said. “Normal dialogue has to be re-established before we reach the stage of high-level visits.”

Bulgaria, once a loyal Soviet ally, has strained ties with Moscow by allowing three small US military bases on its territory and by cancelling three Russian energy projects: an oil pipeline linking its Black Sea coast with Greece’s Aegian coast; a 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant; and the submarine South Stream gas pipeline intended to supply 63 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to the Balkans and central Europe.

The European Commission has asked Bulgaria to adapt its South Stream agreement with Russia to fall in line with EU energy and single market rules or face legal action.

Russia, in response, announced last December it would re-route the project to Turkey, putting the blame on Sofia.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borisov has cried foul, saying his country is not against South Stream so long as it complies with EU rules.

Kalfin, a former foreign minister, said that, in contrast to other EU members, such as Italy and Hungary, Bulgaria has neglected its bilateral ties with Russia, once a big market for its farm exports.

More than 400,000 Russians own vacation homes in Bulgaria and make up the largest portion of foreign tourists.

“A Bulgarian minister has not been in Russia for the past four years,” he said. “Being an EU and Nato member doesn’t prevent one from maintaining working-level relations.”

Russia has gradually grown cool towards pro-western Borisov, who has in turn complained that his country is paying too high a price for its EU and Nato loyalty.

Borisov is heading a shaky four-way coalition cabinet, in which Kalfin represents the small ABV party, which has split from the opposition Socialists and which is reputed to have good ties with Moscow.

ABV leader, former president Georgi Parvanov, at one point negotiated the energy projects that Borisov later trashed.

Although Bulgaria has backed all EU sanctions against Russia, Kalfin criticised sanctions as a foreign policy instrument in principle. “Sanctions are a pathology,” he said. “They lead to nothing but a boom in smuggling.”

Gas talks

Kalfin also said Russia will try to re-route its gas supplies to Europe via Turkey in order to circumvent Ukraine, no matter how difficult this could prove under the existing commercial contracts.

Citing his discussion with Dvorkovich, he said Russia is keen to see an EU vision of how the re-routed gas could reach Europe.

“It would be better that the Russian gas enters the EU directly but not through an intermediary country that would be inclined to re-sell it rather than to transit it,” he said, alluding to Turkey. “This is an open problem for the Russians and they now expect more initiative from the European Commission”.

Kalfin said the US is the main international player insisting on preservation of the current transit route through Ukraine.

“This is not the best option, given the political risks in that country and the state of its gas network,” the Bulgarian politician added.

Despite announcing that South Stream is dead, Russia has taken no formal steps to end its inter-governmental agreement with Bulgaria on the project, Kalfin noted, adding that pipes slated for its cosntruction are still being supplied to depots at the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas.

Sofia must start “a very intense dialogue with the European Commission” to revive the defunct Nabucco-West project that was once intended to link Turkey with Austria across Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, should finally Russia opt for the Turkish route, he said.

The EU abandoned its Nabucco plan two years ago when an international consortium developing the Azery Caspian gas field of Shach Deniz II chose an alternative route through Turkey and Greece to Italy.

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