Bulgarian Authorities Knew They Were Helping Putin Against Ukraine With “TurkStream”

Politics | March 22, 2024, Friday // 14:47
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Authorities Knew They Were Helping Putin Against Ukraine With “TurkStream”

The ruling party, led by GERB, knowingly approved the passage of the "TurkStream" gas pipeline through Bulgaria, according to recent revelations from a press conference involving various media and non-media entities conducting an investigation into the matter. This decision facilitated Russian President Vladimir Putin's circumvention of Ukraine for natural gas transit, but failed to benefit Bulgaria financially. Despite approximately 3 billion BGN of Bulgarian funds being invested in the project, it does not include an exit point in Bulgaria's territory. Initially dubbed "Balkan Stream" by Boyko Borissov's administration, the project was presented as supplying gas for the "Balkan" gas hub, yet it does not provide gas to Bulgaria. Furthermore, the majority of the pipeline's capacity, both at entry and exit points, is reserved by Gazprom in contravention of European regulations.

GERB has yet to disclose the anticipated road map for the project, as an official inquiry at the Ministry of Energy revealed no record of such documentation being filed. Amid heightened interest in the matter, the ministry has pledged to conduct a further investigation.

Initial exposure of the map came from InformNapalm, with subsequent analysis conducted by the Bulgarian online community of cybersecurity and anti-disinformation experts known as "BG Elves."

Reportedly, a roadmap was signed with Gazprom during Boyko Borissov's lone visit to Moscow in 2018, aiming to alter gas flows and establish a route through Bulgaria as an extension of the "TurkStream," bypassing Ukraine. A memorandum for gas transmission network development was also signed by Energy Minister Temenuzka Petkova in 2017, but allegedly vanished following GERB's departure from power.

Petko Petkov and an anonymous colleague from "BG Elves" were approached by InformNapalm while investigating the Serbian segment of the project, offering to collaborate on the Bulgarian component. Documents, including email exchanges involving Evgeny Zobnin, assistant to Russian parliament deputy speaker Alexander Babakov, were obtained, with the roadmap notably found unprotected compared to other encrypted correspondences.

Furthermore, disclosed records indicate frequent visits by representatives of the Institute for International Integration, a think-tank allegedly used to advance Russian influence under the pretext of trade, as evidenced by their travel expense reports and correspondence.

According to findings from an investigative probe, Bulgarian politicians and the National Assembly were purportedly well aware of the true implications of the project for both Russia and Bulgaria. "BG Elves" highlighted a significant shift in the Bulgarian Socialist Party's stance on the project following Kornelia Ninova's visit to Moscow, indicating pressure exerted by GERB, supported by documented evidence. Atanas Chobanov of "Bivol" revealed that the State Agency for National Security (SANS) issued a classified report during a closed meeting of the energy commission in the National Assembly, disclosing the project's objective to allow Putin to bypass Ukraine while yielding no benefits for Bulgaria. Chobanov also mentioned facing legal action for publishing these confidential reports.

Ljubo Venkov from "BOEC" expressed expectations for the formation of a parliamentary commission to investigate the "TurkStream" project, citing assurance from a senior civil servant willing to testify about misconduct related to the project, including reported pressure tactics.

One of the highlighted irregularities, as pointed out by Ivaylo Stanchev from "Capital," was the purported circumvention of the Public Procurement Act. Stanchev also underscored that the project's chosen contractor, "Arcade," originally from Saudi Arabia, was eventually acquired by Russian entities. Moreover, the project's remarkably swift completion, within approximately one year, was noted, allegedly facilitated by the employment of illegally imported Russian and Belarusian workers. Attendees at the press conference, privy to leaked documents, corroborated suspicions, stating there was no evidence of legally issued work visas for these laborers.

Iliyan Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Russia and an energy expert, has highlighted a series of major falsehoods propagated by GERB officials regarding the project. Among these, Vassilev refuted the assertion that Boyko Borissov and Bulgaria terminated the South Stream project voluntarily, clarifying that external factors such as the annexation of Crimea and strained relations between Italian firm "Eni" and "Gazprom" led to its cessation. Vassilev emphasized Bulgaria's limited influence in stopping such projects, stressing that the nation lacked the leverage to halt South Stream independently.

Moreover, Vassilev raised concerns about Bulgaria's asymmetrical dependence resulting from the project, citing approximately BGN 1 billion in lost benefits from a rejected contract and incurred debt from project construction costs. He criticized authorities for claiming the project ensured Russian gas supply at low prices while failing to secure transit benefits for Bulgaria. Despite contractual agreements, Russia halted gas supplies to Bulgaria in April 2022, favoring transit interests over direct supply to Bulgaria. Vassilev questioned the national interest behind the project, refuting claims that if the pipeline bypassed Bulgaria, it would bypass the country entirely. He argued that diverting the pipeline to Italy would be logistically unfeasible and pointed out Greece's inability to replace Bulgaria in the project due to conflicting interests with its participation in the Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline.

Vassilev also expressed concerns over Bulgaria's continued reliance on Russian gas, noting that complete cessation of gas transit by 2027, as advocated by the European Commission, would pose bankruptcy risks for Bulgartransgaz. Consequently, Bulgarian representatives often oppose complete refusal of Russian gas during EU votes, according to Vassilev. Notably, Russian gas transit through Bulgaria in 2022 and 2023 yielded billion in revenues for Gazprom.

Regarding the "TurkStream" project, Vassilev highlighted its significance in bolstering Russian geopolitical influence, connecting leaders such as Erdogan, Radev, Vucic, and Orban. He criticized GERB leader Boyko Borissov's purported pride in the project's achievement, emphasizing its alignment with Russian interests.

Furthermore, Lyubo Venkov from "BOEC" highlighted the lack of institutional response to reported irregularities associated with the project. Despite documenting paramilitary presence (like "Wagner" PMC) and undocumented labor along the pipeline route, no significant action was taken by Bulgarian institutions, except for a response from the European Prosecutor's Office. Venkov also revealed receiving threats and being wiretapped in connection with their actions, underscoring the challenges faced in exposing Russian espionage activities. Although assurances were received regarding the establishment of a temporary commission by the National Assembly, concrete action remains elusive, raising concerns over accountability and oversight in Bulgaria's energy projects.

This investigation into Bulgaria's involvement in the "TurkStream gas pipeline project revealed a complex web of political decisions, irregularities, and implications. The ruling party, GERB, is accused of knowingly approving the project, which facilitated Putin's gas transit bypassing Ukraine but failed to benefit Bulgaria financially. Most importantly, the project facilitated Putin's objectives prior to the war in Ukraine in several ways:

  • Bypassing Ukraine: By establishing an alternative route for natural gas transit through Bulgaria, the "TurkStream" pipeline allowed Russia to circumvent Ukraine entirely. This significantly reduced Ukraine's leverage in negotiations with Russia over gas transit fees and terms, weakening Ukraine's strategic position in the region.

  • Reducing Dependency on Ukrainian Transit: Prior to the completion of the "TurkStream" pipeline, a significant portion of Russian natural gas exports to Europe passed through Ukraine. By diverting these flows through the new pipeline, Russia decreased its reliance on Ukrainian transit routes, thereby diminishing Ukraine's importance as a transit country for Russian gas.

  • Economic Pressure on Ukraine: The "TurkStream" project contributed to Ukraine's economic challenges by depriving the country of transit fees and diminishing its role in the European natural gas market. This economic pressure further weakened Ukraine's position vis-à-vis Russia, making it more susceptible to Russian influence and coercion.

Overall, the "TurkStream" project served as a strategic tool for Putin to exert influence over Ukraine's energy sector, reduce Ukraine's bargaining power, and advance Russia's geopolitical interests in the region.

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Tags: Bulgarian, energy, TurkStream, gas

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