FP: Bulgaria Is the New Battleground in Fighting Russian Energy

Views on BG | January 18, 2015, Sunday // 15:53
Bulgaria: FP: Bulgaria Is the New Battleground in Fighting Russian Energy Photo by BGNES

Bulgaria, a country playing a "central role in Europe's emerging energy picture", is becoming "the latest wishbone in the struggle between Moscow's efforts to to assert its energy dominance over Europe and the West’s efforts to cage that gassy bear," according to Foreign Policy.

Its article titled "Sofia's Choice" explores the clash of energy agendas of the US, Europe and Russia in Bulgaria, "a small, Russophile country".

The text comes after US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Sofia earlier this week. At a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Kerry underscored Washington's commitment to the energy security of Bulgaria and announced plans to send the top US energy official.

FP quotes Amos Hochstein, the State Department's special envoy with the Bureau of Energy Resources, as saying the region "has been extremely vulnerable to the use of energy as a political and economic tool, and the way out of that vulnerability is to diversify its energy market."

In Hochstein's words, Washington is intending to "give Bulgaria and its neighbors the kind of options that could improve their security and their economies," unlike South Stream, "a political pipeline, intended to continue the dependence of Europe on a single supplier for another generation."

Reminding of the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the latter's actions on the Crimean peninsula and the "carrots" used by Western countries with regard to Eastern Europe to fend off Russian aspirations there, the article points to the fact that "the battle for influence has spread from the streets of Kiev... to Bulgaria."

The country is described here as "a country literally created by Russia and one long seen as a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment inside the European Union." As seen later the author is referring to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria, until then part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, and the restoration of its statehood.

A parallel is drawn between Bulgaria and Hungary, with the latter undergoing what Washington and Brussels are seeing as a "pro-Kremlin tilt" there.

"Bulgaria's geography makes it a key energy player," the article goes on further, adding its "sympathetic view of Moscow... makes it a potential weak link as Europe tries to present a united front against Russia for its violation of international law in Ukraine."

Both Brussels and Washington, however, are facing the challenge of matching "the influence that the Kremlin has traditionally had in Sofia." Experts are cited saying initial plans to develop own natural gas resources under PM Boyko Borisov's previous government were renounced by that very same government due to "heavy pressure from Russia, which sought to discourage rival energy supply."

Bulgaria announced in January 2012 a ban on shale gas projects, with Borisov reasserting it will not be lifted unless an environmentally safe technology is developed.

Pointing to the fact that Bulgaria blocked the South Stream pipeline by not issuing construction permits, the text warns "many in Sofia still yearn for the project" due to fears "they could again suffer dramatic energy shortages such as happened when gas flows across Ukraine... were interrupted in the winters of 2006 and 2009."

The author points to "deep-pocketed Russian energy influence in the capital," quoting former Bulgarian Environment Minister Yulian Popov as saying "there are some companies that benefit from the Russian gas monopoly" which are able to mold the government's gas agenda.

But Tim Boersma, an expert on European energy at the Brookings Institution, believes the West does not "come up with a good alternative plan" to prevent Bulgaria from getting "in bed further with Russia."

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Tags: Bulgaria, Russia, West, europe, US, Boyko Borisov, John Kerry, Amos Hochstein, energy, South stream
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