In Bulgaria, doubts about life without Russian gas

Posted on Friday 06 May 2022 at 07:24

In the tangle of bright yellow pipes emerging from the ground, Russian gas is transported in abundance, but Bulgaria, approved by Moscow for refusing to pay in rubles, is now forbidden to touch it.

Apparently, the suspension of deliveries by the giant Gazprom on April 27 did not change much for the Iteman compressor station, which is located 60 kilometers from the capital Sofia.

The precious product continues to flow. The only difference and size for this Balkan country, which is 90% dependent on Russian gas, is now heading exclusively towards neighboring Greece or North Macedonia.

Bulgaria, like Poland, paid for its purchases in the currency stipulated in its contracts with Gazprom and did not give in to Moscow’s request to open a second account in rubles, in response to Western sanctions taken in the wake of the attack on Ukraine.

The Russian company responded by stopping the flow of gas.

In the rest of the EU, payments are due in mid-May and more are expected to be suspended.

– “How will they pay?” –

In the face of what it describes as “blackmail”, the Bulgarian government wanted to be reassured, insisting on “other options” available to meet the annual needs of about 3 billion cubic meters of gas.

Skeptical firms worry about supply problems and price hikes in the poorest country in the European Union, where inflation is breaking records.

“We’re really on the verge of collapse,” complains Valerie Krastev, a bread factory owner in Montana (North). “We’re going to have to increase what we’re charging customers but how are people going to pay?”

Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov said that in May, Bulgaria had to pay 10% more than it paid Gazprom for April, while it was necessary to get emergency supplies from EU partners through a trading company.

The president of the Federation of Industrial Energy Consumers (BFIEC) is not losing his temper. “I can’t believe they are trying to convince us that this is a good thing,” Konstantin Staminov said on public radio BNR.

Others have a good heart against bad luck: “Yes, it will be more expensive but it won’t be impossible to work,” says AFP Krasin Korkchev, head of household products and cosmetics group Ficosota, which has already begun organizing themselves to reduce their gas use.

In this Balkan country, traditionally close to Moscow, the pro-European prime minister, Kirill Petkov, promised to speed up the search for new sources of supply.

In recent days, he traveled to Greece to inspect the construction of a new gas pipeline, which will allow to receive Azerbaijani gas in large quantities from the Caspian Sea. He also met with Romanian leaders to discuss a joint wind energy project in the Black Sea.

– 42-day reserve –

The government is also negotiating the purchase of liquefied natural gas from the United States and Egypt, which is much needed in Europe as an alternative to Russian gas.

Bulgaria also has reserves in the Chirin (Northwest) depot, which can cover a significant part of consumption for 42 days, according to the head of the Bolgartangaz operator Vladimir Malinov.

For now, spring temperatures have softened the blow to Bulgarian families, some of whom still remember the long gas cut in January 2009, at the height of winter, due to the Russia-Ukrainian conflict.

Since then, diversification has been constantly pushed.

Gazprom’s decision is a “unique opportunity” to finally free itself from Russian control of energy, believes Martin Vladimirov, of the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy.

But this process cannot be done in one day and, above all, the expert warns of a maneuver on the part of Russia that would work behind the scenes to replace the Bulgarian National Gas Company with more expensive intermediaries. So the Hungarian company MET, which negotiated the new deliveries, is close to Gazprom, he says.

“Ultimately, we may end up with greater dependence with deteriorating contractual conditions” and gas … from Russia, warns Vladimirov.

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