Is Overgas Crisis 'a Plot against Govt' or 'a Plot against Overgas'?
A brief summary of developments at Bulgarian private supplier Overgas, which is in an apparent commercial dispute with Gazprom, and diverging opinions about what is happening behind the scenes - ranging from a plot against the government to hybrid warfare.
Overgas, Bulgaria's biggest private gas supplier, is currently counting on deliveries from state-owned Bulgargaz to fulfill the needs of its customers. Their number is far from being negligible: about 55 000 households and about 3000 business consumers.
It all began just before New Year's eve: on November 30, the Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH), which brings together state-owned energy companies, said it had received a copy of a letter from Gazprom Export to Overgas notifying the latter company gas supplies to it would be halted as of January 01.
The company then denied having received such a letter, while at the same time Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was meeting energy officials to instruct them they should stand ready to help Overgas if needed.
Just a day later the private supplier, according to PM Borisov and BEH CEO Jacklen Cohen, turned to Bulgargaz for help, with the two parties signing an agreement under which Overgas would be provided with gas to avert a potential supply crisis its customers would have suffered.
In the meantime, Russia's Foreign Ministry had officially confirmed it Gazprom was working to settle "commercial issues" with Overgas (short of explicitly saying deliveries to the company would indeed be brought to a halt); but Overgas insists it is falling victim to a plot aimed at "stealing is business".
In a Monday interview, for his part, Borisov called Overgas "insolent", asserting it had been the company that requested help and had no right to pretend its business was being stolen.
The private supplier still maintains it has no financial obligations to any company, Gazprom included, and was only informed of the halt on December 31, after 17:00. It also disagrees with BEH's CEO Cohen who says Bulgargaz is not obliged to help private companies under the law, citing Bulgaria's Energy Act and the legal need for a "public supplier" (what Bulgargaz is) to avert critical situations such as the one of the last several days.
Both Overgas and Bulgargaz use a single source as their main gas supplier - Gazprom, Russia's energy giant. The latter's exports arm, Gazprom Export, on the other hand, is also the second-biggest shareholder at Overgas (49.51%), Inc., followed by OAO Gazprom (0.49%), with Bulgaria-based Overgas Holding AD being the major one with its 50 percent.
Is Gazprom Withdrawing or Seeking to Get a Bigger Share?
Gazprom, on the other hand, has been making no secret over the last few months of its plans to withdraw from a number of joint-stock companies in Eastern Europe.
Ilian Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow and currently a Managing Partner at a Eastern European consultancy named Innovative Energy Solutions, believes the Russian government is embarking on the attack against Overgas to pursue its own goals.
"So Russia and the Kremlin are carrying out a hybrid event. The goal is to remove a businessman from a key asset such as Overgas and to give it to another one - in return of South Stream or more precisely upcoming favors," he wrote on his blog just as the cabinet and energy officials were meeting again on New Year's eve, minutes before the agreement of Bulgargaz and Overgas was signed.
Speaking of "a businessman" he was referring to Sasho Donchev, who owns Overgas and is also the publisher of Sega, a daily newspaper noted for its opposition-style rhetoric.
"I don't believe something really critical happened just a month after Gazprom announced it was to withdraw," he added, wondering what lies behind speculation whether Overgas is or is not able to make payments to Gazprom.
Vassilev also stressed that, with its expansion into a market yet that is yet to liberalize (this year), Overgas is acting as a "precursor" of liberalization by having taken some industrial customers away from Bulgargaz, a process that should partly explain the dispute.
He slammed Gazprom for failing to notify Sofia earlier about an issue concerning energy security, in a situation where customers affected are most likely to blame their situation on the government.
Vassilev opined the case of Overgas would bring to Bulgaria's agenda abandoned projects such as South Stream and the Burgas-Alexandroupoli oil pipeline.
Hristo Kazandzhiev, another energy expert, for his part argues Gazprom is actually seeking to acquire Overgas as a majority shareholder.
However, in an interview with the Bulgarian National Radio he added there was nothing unusual about steps taken by the Russian energy giant which in his words is applying "normal corporate policies".
"I don't see anything that should be condemned, especially if a serious, long-term non-compliance of contractual relations was committed".
"The steps of last resort taken by Gazprom Export are usually made only in cases of long-term failure to abide by contractual obligations," he made clear, criticizing Overgas for failing to foresees such a halt in supplies.
Russia and Gazprom 'Not to Blame'
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov rules out that Russia might have any involvement in the affair. In an interview with private national bTV station, he stressed neither Moscow nor Gazprom were to blame for the failure of Overgas to ask for help earlier.
At the same time he believes the development was a plot to destabilize the government and trigger mass protests, given that in his words most of the affected consumers would have blamed him, and not Overgas, for their situation.
Borisov did not point out who might be trying to destabilize the government. He was quick to point to his good relations with Overgas owner Sasho Donchev, despite snubbing at the cartoons and "stories" published by Sega: "I will refrain from comment, it is not on my level to do so."
Whatever the truth is, the issues is a sensitive one to Borisov himself, whose previous government resigned after massive protests over energy prices; but it is even more sensitive to customers who might have been affected.
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