Athens and Sofia are accelerating joint efforts to become less dependent on Russian natural gas, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov indicates in an interview with Kathimerini.
Commenting on plans to build a nuclear power station in Bulgaria that would also be able to supply energy to Greece, Petkov notes that his country is already exploring possible suppliers and moving ahead with a feasibility study so that it will be able to present a proposal, possibly within the next 12 months.
Petkov explains why Bulgaria will not follow the European Union should it decide to impose an embargo on Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom and responds emphatically to calls from Moscow for NATO to leave Bulgaria. He also stresses that ties between Bulgaria and Russia are close but says this is separate to the “authoritarian regime” of President Vladimir Putin.
What are your thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how does it affect the traditionally close ties between Bulgaria and Russia?
It is an aggressive act of war against a neighboring country. The statistics are very saddening… I am also saddened for the Russian soldiers who have been killed because of Putin’s actions, which defy all reason. All of these people are dying on the altar of the imperial desires of an authoritarian leader, who has simply gone too far. This is why I am pleased that we are all speaking in one voice in Europe, saying that it will not go unpunished. We have adopted some very strong measures, in economic terms at least. Unfortunately, a military response is not easy as it would bring about a world war. Nevertheless, we support the Ukrainian people completely, 100%.
How is Bulgaria contributing to the West’s efforts to support Ukraine?
We are sending humanitarian aid and opening our borders to refugees… We are voting in favor of the punitive measures being imposed by the EU and we are supporting our NATO partners in the context of the Alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Bulgaria does indeed have close ties to the people and culture of Russia, but we separate this from the current authoritarian regime in Russia, the Putin regime. And we also have to note that what we have here is a war between brothers, one Slavic nation again another Slavic nation.
Moscow recently demanded that NATO withdraw from Bulgaria and Romania. How do you respond?
I am entirely opposed. I do not like the idea of anyone telling us what we should and should not do. We are an independent state and we make our own choices. And I do not think that there can be two types of country in NATO, those with a military and those without. This is nothing short of a provocation from Moscow. It is completely unrealistic.
You recently noted that your country would request an exemption from any EU decisions to impose an embargo on Russian gas imports. Why is that and how likely is such a prospect?
‘Bulgaria does indeed have close ties to the people and culture of Russia, but we separate this from the current authoritarian regime in Russia’
It’s not just us. Many European countries are taking tough measures against Russia, and even countries like Germany or Austria cannot completely rule out Russian gas, on which they are highly dependent. This is the simple truth. We are more than 80% dependent on Russian energy. In essence, we would be shutting down our economy.
– You have negotiations with Gazprom coming up after Bulgaria’s contract expires by the end of this year. Meanwhile, discussions are under way on how Greece could contribute to Bulgaria’s energy sufficiency. How do these two issues tie in together?
In the wake of recent developments, it is essential that we further diversify our sources of energy. We are working very closely with the Greek prime minister on this, in order to strengthen the energy interconnection of our countries, through the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline, as well as in liquefied natural gas reserves in Alexandroupoli. These are two options we are interested in moving on as fast as possible, so that we have alternatives.
I would like to take the opportunity to say how pleased I am with our cooperation with the Greek government and the excellent relationship with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whom I consider an excellent prime minister.
Athens and Sofia are in talks for a bilateral agreement on the supply of nuclear energy from Bulgaria to Greece. What do these negotiations concern, exactly?
You need cheaper electricity. We have nuclear energy and you do not. Putting these two factors side by side we can work together as good neighbors, building long-term relationships through the creation of a nuclear power production unit, with joint benefits, in an area that is a significant alternative to the energy shortages we have in our region.
And where are we with those talks? Is there some kind of timeline on the table?
We are examining candidate suppliers and moving ahead with a feasibility study. Immediately after that, we will come back with specific proposals for Greece. I’d like to believe that we’ll have a clear picture on what and how within 12 months.
The war in Ukraine has created a wave of refugees. How is Bulgaria dealing with the prospect of a new migration crisis, which comes on top of the inflows we see from Turkey every so often – occasionally for unorthodox reasons, as was the case in Evros two years ago?
Indeed. I was at our borders just the other day. We have organized a very good reception system in a very short time. We receive visitors and examine what documents they are carrying so we can distinguish the tourists from the refugees. Those who are fleeing the war in Ukraine are given temporary protection and then we examine accommodation options, offering 20 euros per person per night at a hotel. We are trying to find work for them as fast as possible and to ensure education, and we are also working with the health system to get them vaccinated.
Bulgaria has certain reservations toward North Macedonia’s accession to the European Union. What are these?
We are in favor of North Macedonia’s European prospects, as we are of Albania’s. But there are certain matters that need to be settled first, such as the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia being respected, with guarantees enshrined in the constitution. We have a roadmap and very good communication with the government of North Macedonia, and hope to make swift progress.