ECONOMY

Bulgaria confirms political support for EU gas scheme

SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria yesterday confirmed its strong political support for a major European Union gas scheme to soothe fears that Sofia had dealt a blow to the bloc’s efforts to ease dependence on Russian energy. On Friday last week, the new EU member signed a deal to join the Kremlin-backed -10 billion South Stream gas pipeline project viewed in Brussels as a rival to its own Nabucco scheme that aims to diversify gas supplies away from Russia. Some commentators have said joining South Stream, which plans to meet all Central and Southern Europe gas demand from 2013 via a pipeline under the Black Sea, could weaken Bulgaria’s political support for Nabucco and hamper the EU plans. «There were comments that Bulgaria had stabbed the EU in the back and had helped the Russian interests,» Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev told parliament. «There have been also statements that this project is an alternative to Nabucco. This is complete nonsense,» he said. «Bulgaria is strongly interested in the realization of the Nabucco project because it, just like South Stream, is part of plans to diversify energy supplies in Europe.» Stanishev said South Stream and Nabucco complemented each other given forecasts that the EU gas needs would jump to 450 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2015 from 360 bcm in 2005. Bulgaria, which receives almost all of its gas and oil from Russia, has been torn between Moscow’s lucrative offer and loyalty to the EU’s drive to reduce reliance on Russian gas. Anxiety over Russian supplies emerged after a political dispute between Moscow and Kiev cut exports briefly in 2006. Russia supplies a quarter of the EU’s gas and four-fifths of the exports travel via Ukraine. The five-billion-euro long-delayed Nabucco is due to bring gas from untapped fields in the Caspian and Middle East via Turkey and the Balkans to Austria. Analysts say its main problem is not Russian rivalry but lack of guaranteed supplies. Opposition politicians in Bulgaria, which was once Moscow’s most loyal Soviet satellite, accused the Socialist-led government of betraying its commitments to the EU and NATO and helping Russia to tighten its grip on European energy. Western diplomats in Sofia said the United States was also unhappy to see Russia cementing its presence in the Balkans due to fears that Moscow might use its energy resources to exert political pressure in the future. Russia yesterday signed a big energy deal with Serbia, seen as strengthening further its grip on the European Union’s gas. Stanishev dismissed the opposition accusations and said expanding relations with Russia did not change Bulgaria’s geopolitical Western orientation. «The development of economic and spiritual relations with the Russian federation and holding political dialogue, in any way cannot put under doubt the foreign policy priorities and commitments of Bulgaria as a EU and NATO member,» he said.