A political thriller seems to be unravelling in Sofia, showing early symptoms of an impending geopolitical crisis over the flow of the Russian gas …

Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor

An official ceremony in Istanbul took place, on January 8, to signal the launching of the TurkStream gas pipeline. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the inaugural hosts, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov pressed the pipeline button. The pipeline is seen supplying the Turkish market and branching out through Bulgaria, named BalkanStream, and Serbia to send gas to Central Europe.

The original “South Stream” project, a pipeline connecting Russia directly to Bulgaria through the Black Sea, was rerouted due to Sofia’s procrastination in implementing the project. Eventually, the Balkan leg of the recently inaugurated TurkStream, named as BalkanStream, carries the Russian gas to Serbia, Republica Srepska, Norhtern Macedonia and possibly Romania and Hungary.

Bulgaria began receiving Russian gas from TurkStream on January 1, through the new gas transmission point Strandja-2, at the border with Turkey, instead of -as had heretofore been the case- via the Trans Balkan Pipeline coming from Ukraine through Romania.

Bulgaria: a new Geopolitical and Energy Battleground?

Today, in the Balkans seems difficult to carry out energy infrastructure where one project, one pipeline for example, competes or wants to “neutralize” the other. TurkStream pipeline allows Gazprom to deliver gas to Southern Europe without going through Ukraine. Till December 31, it was senting nearly 16 bcm/year of gas, through the Trans Balkan Pipeline between Ukraine and Bulgaria. Last year, Gazprom shipped about 3 bcm to Greece and about 500,000 mcm to North Macedonia via that route. From now on, it will initially ship about 3 bcm/year of gas to Bulgaria via TurkStream,
Despite efforts by Sofia and Belgrade to build the necessary infrastructure for transiting Russian gas to Europe, Gazprom may end up shipping no more than 7.5 bcm/year through the prospective BalkanStream, because Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has been unsuccessful in securing an exemption from the EU energy regulations for the “Balkan Gas Hub.”

Exactly the same date, January 8, of Boyko Borissov’s presence in TurkStream’s inauguration cerenomy, the begining of the first session of the Bulgaria-US Strategic Dialogue took place at Sofia, with the participation of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and his delegation.
During Prime Minister Borissov’s visit to the White House last November 2019, the excellent relations between Bulgaria and the US in the field of security and defence, both bilateral and within NATO, were confirmed, with mr. Borissov stressing “…the Bulgaria-US strategic dialogue is of the utmost importance for the development of relations between the two countries. The aim is to provide concrete results in key areas of mutual interest such as security and defence, the fight against terrorism, energy security, law enforcement, education, relations between citizens.”
After his visit the Bulgarian Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed especially, the importance of co-operation between Bulgaria and the US in the energy sector, which has the potential to contribute to enhancing Bulgaria’s energy security and the diversification of energy resources and routes, including through the introduction of liquefied natural gas.

Bulgaria will, most likely, find itself in the middle of the “Energy War” between U.S.A. and Russia, deprived of the according Turkey’s leverage which, although one of the oldest NATO members, seems to have chosen to side with Russia in this conflict.

Bulgaria, being a NATO and EU member, met difficulties to materialize the original project of “South Stream”, coupled with pressure from some European countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated at a joint press conference with President of Serbia Alexander Vucic in early December 2019, that the Bulgarian side deliberately delayed the project to extend the TurkStream gas pipeline on its territory. Meanwhile, he noted that if Bulgaria abandoned the project, Moscow would be able to find alternative options to supply gas to the south of Europe.

On the contrary, Bulgarian authorities deny the presence of any political considerations behind their foot-dragging pipeline construction work on their territory. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has said that the work is being carried out at impressively fast pace and that the construction activities are done on schedule according to all Bulgarian and European procedures. “Bulgaria follows all procedures as an EU member -appeals, tenders, everything has been completed. From the first day up to now, more than 5 km per day has been built. It is not by chance that we named it that and it was how we presented it in Brussels, the “Balkan Gas Hub” as it will serve the Balkans,” mr. Borissov has said. In his words, 18,000 pipes were delivered in total, and an additional 3,700 were delivered to the Port of Burgas. He has stressed that the deadlines for the construction of BalkanStream will be met and the whole route will be ready by the end of May.

According to mr. Borissov, when BalkanStream’s construction is completed, Bulgaria will become the “only fast and good alternative” for Russian gas.

Geopolitical obligations…

On the other hand, however, considering President Putin’s criticism and facing staunch opposition to TurkStream by both the EU and the United States, Prime Minister Borissov has undertaken steps to diversify gas supplies to the prospective “Balkan Gas Hub”. Brussels has already stated that the project would be approved only if Bulgaria can secure gas supplies from three different sources. Apart from TurkStream, Sofia listed local gas production and the Southern Gas Corridor -a project of strategic interest to the EU.
The Southern Gas Corridor -a chain of linked pipelines (TANAP and TAP) across the South Caucasus, Turkey and the southern Balkans, culminating in Italy- which will supply 10 b.c.m./year of Azerbaijani gas to Southern Europe and beyond, is on track to open in 2020.

This is the reason why, after a decade of delays, work on the Interconnector Bulgaria-Greece (I.B.G.) finally commenced in May 2019, and the 182-kilometer cross-border pipeline, designed to deliver Azerbaijani gas to Bulgaria, via T.A.P., is expected to become operational this year. Its transportation capacity will be 3 bcm/year, scalable to 5 bcm/year by installing a compressor station in future. Sofia is working to increase the contracted volumes of Azerbaijani gas from 1 bcm/year to 3 bcm/year.
“We have a geostrategic interest in staying in the gas network. Bulgaria is a regional strategic gas distribution centre in the Balkans. This means that gas will come from many countries and Bulgaria will receive transit fees,” the Prime Minister has stated. “The diversification is not just words,” he told reporters at the opening of the first session of the US-Bulgaria strategic dialogue, adding that with the construction of the interconnector with Greece, Bulgaria will achieve real gas diversification.

Additionally, Bulgaria decided to purchase a 20% share in the prospective floating LNG storage and F.S.R.U. regasification terminal in Alexandropoulis, Greece. Under the deal, state-owned gas company Bulgartransgaz will buy 20% of Gastrade, part of Greek energy company Copelouzos, the same as that of Greece’s state energy company DEPA. The terminal will receive LNG from the US and Qatar initially. Notably, the decision was made one day after TurkStream was officially inaugurated in Turkey!

U.S. sanctions and reactions…

Although Gazprom and the Southern Gas Corridor consortium have said that they do not consider their projects rivals, both aim to deliver gas to Southeastern Europe. The EU and the United States want other countries to send supplies through the Southern Gas Corridor, so that it becomes a full-fledged competitor to Gazprom and helps the region reduce its dependence on Russian energy exports. Options for additional exporters to join the Southern Gas Corridor include Turkmenistan, northern Iraq and producers operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, through the future EastMed pipeline possibly.

The clash between US and Russia over the energy routes have turned the regional axis of South East Europe-Mediterranean into a ground of conflicting interests. Some claim that Europe doesn’t need Russia and Russian gas and is looking for alternatives to release itself from Russian “claws”, while part of it is trying to rely on the U.S. and the American shale gas. Furthermore, it is claimed that TurkStream does not align with the strategic goals of the U.S. and the EU’s Third Energy Package legislation.

In this context, U.S.A. is opposed to the TurkStream gas pipeline, which carries Russian natural gas to Southern Europe through Turkey, as undermining European energy security and unity. Α senior State Department official has been quoted as saying “…The second line of TurkStream do nothing to advance Europe’s energy security goals and would provide Russia another tool for the political and economic coercion of european countries, especially Ukraine. Russia understands that these projects are dividing Europe, and is using that to its advantage.”
U.S.A. shows that it is against TurkStream with its CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions. The U.S. Congress increased its pressure on TurkStream and Nord Stream 2 with the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 it passed in December 2019 and by supporting some sanctions. The implementation of items targeting ships involved in laying pipes on the seabed in these projects may be on the agenda in 2020. However, as Turkish firms do not carry out the sea part of the project, it is not possible to directly implement U.S. sanctions on Turkey. On the other hand, since the TurkStream project was initiated earlier than CAATSA’s enactment, it should not be involved in these sanctions.

A political crisis seems to be unraveling in Bulgaria recently…

As a background to the US-Russia “Energy Clash” over the Balkans and the S.E. Europe, as well as Bulgaria’s “multi-polar” energy strategy, political developments and foreign interference through adverse statements have sparked rather abruptly during the past month:

  1. Bulgaria expeled two Russian diplomats over spying allegations, its foreign ministry announced. They were suspected of collecting “state secrets in order to transfer it to a foreign state or organization.”
    The chief prosecutor’s office said that the first diplomat, a consular first secretary, collected information on elections from 2017, while the second, an official at Russia’s trade representation, gathered sensitive information on the energy sector and energy security from 2018. Russia is Bulgaria’s biggest energy supplier.
    The accusation came a day after three Russians were charged by Bulgarian prosecutors with the 2015 attempted murder by poisoning of a Bulgarian weapons trader and his son.
    Moscow’s reaction to the deportation of the two Russians from Bulgaria was immediate, describing it as a completely hostile and provocative action, while reserving the right to retaliate.
    There has also been a reaction from the embassies of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, supporting Bulgaria’s efforts to limit “foreign malicious acts.”
  2. President Rumen Radev announced that he formally withdraw his confidence from the Government, which, in his view, was not acting in the interests of Bulgarian citizens.
    The President pointed out that there was a strong crisis in governance at all levels; with a lack of will to reform and fight corruption and waste, law and morals were routinely being bypassed.
    Prime Minister Boyko Borissov responding that he had no contact with him and that this move of his would cost him nothing, he added that “I know I will get BalkanStream done; I know I will realize the interconnection with Greece. I think I will manage Belene as well.”
  3. The US State Department reaffirmed in a statement “…the US commitment to combating corruption in Bulgaria and globally.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo barred a Bulgarian judge from entering the US because of his alleged involvement in “significant corruption.” The wife and daughter of Specialized Criminal Court Judge Andon Mitalov won’t be allowed into the US. “In his official capacity, Mitalov was involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Bulgaria,” Pompeo has stated, without providing any details of the Mitalov’s acts.
    In November, judge Mitalov issued a court order that allowed Nikolay Malinov, the head of the National Russophile Movement in Bulgaria, to travel to Moscow to receive a state honor from Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
    However, at the time, Malinov was prohibited from leaving Bulgaria as he was on bail awaiting trial for espionage. He is accused of spying for Russia, more precisely for supplying information to help Russia turn Bulgaria away from its pro-Western orientation. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
  4. Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Anatoly Makarov stated recently, in an interview on Bulgarian television, that he would very much like the “witch hunt for Russian diplomats” to end. He added that the TurkStream gas pipeline will be built and will pass through Bulgaria. “I have the assurance from Minister Temenuzhka Petkova. This fits Moscow.”
    In his interview, Anatoly Makarov separated Russian-Bulgarian relations before and after October 21, 2019. According to him, things are not logical. The ambassador said there are forces that are not interested in TurkStream continuing its flow through Bulgaria as BalkanStream to the Balkans.
    Ambassador Makarov said the change of behavior took place a little after that date. He was summoned to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, where he was informed of the deportation of a Russian diplomat accused of espionage. Two weeks after the inauguration of TurkStream in Istanbul on January 8, he was again summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be informed of the deportation of two Russian diplomats. However, the way this occurred was unacceptable, as the news of the deportation was leaked to the media, before Makarov was made aware of the fact.
    The Russian diplomat believes that the cause of these problems in the Russo-Bulgarian relations is TurkStream and its continuation through the Bulgarian territory as BalkanStream.
    The US allies don’t want this pipeline, they don’t want BalkanStream. We have heard on the radio US Deputy Secretary of State Davis Hale’s statement that TurkStream is one and the same with BalkanStream and that is why it should not pass through Bulgaria,” Ambassador Makarov has said. However, according to him, TurkStream and BalkanStream are two different things and this is also confirmed by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. “Turkey’s TurkStream gas will be cheaper for Bulgaria because no transit charges will be paid through Romania,” the Russian ambassador said.
  5. Former US Ambassador to Bulgaria James Pardew gave an interview on bTV, referring to a number of issues such as politics, corruption, freedom of expression and Russia’s influence in Bulgaria. According to the US diplomat, four things hinder Bulgaria’s progress.
    “First of all, the level of corruption and organized crime. Secondly, I am concerned about the lack of free and independent journalism in Bulgaria. The officials are not accountable. Third, there is a one-party system in Bulgaria. The prime minister and the GERB govern the political arena, while there are other parties, but they are not effective. And fourthly, Bulgaria depends on Russia for its energy and that gives Russia influence. The Putin regime in Moscow is authoritarian and has enormous influence on Bulgaria. I fear that Russia will use its influence in Bulgaria for non-democratic purposes. These are serious problems in Bulgaria today,” mr. Pardew stressed.

It is more than evident that the Bulgarian government has been entangled itself between it’s EU/NATO obligations and it’s mutli-dimensional energy plan, amid the “Energy War” between U.S.A. and Russia. It remains to be seen whether the so far diplomatic skirmishes will grow to a more strong intervention and political upheaval, or even geopolitical crisis, forcing the Bulgarian government to take some rather difficult decisions…


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