In Bulgaria, the uncertainties of a life without Russian gas

Posted 06 May, 2022

In the intertwining of bright yellow pipes emerging from the ground, Russian gas is transported in abundance but Bulgaria, sanctioned by Moscow for having refused to pay in rubles, is now prohibited from touching it.

Apparently, the cessation of deliveries by the giant Gazprom on April 27 has not changed much for the Ihtiman compressor station, located 60 km from the capital Sofia.

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

Bulgaria, like Poland, paid for their purchases in the currency provided for in their contracts with Gazprom and did not give in to Moscow's request to open a second account in rubles, in reaction to Western sanctions taken in the wake of the offensive in Ukraine.

The Russian company retaliated by stopping the flow of gas.

In the rest of the European Union (EU), payments are scheduled for mid-May and further suspensions are expected.

 

"How are they going to pay?"

 

Faced with what it describes as "blackmail", the Bulgarian government wanted to be reassuring, insisting on "the other options" available to meet the annual needs of around 3 billion m3 of gas.

Skeptical, companies fear supply problems and a rise in prices in this poorest country in the EU, where inflation is breaking records.

“We are already on the verge of breaking up,” complains Valeri Krastev, owner of a bread factory in the city of Montana (north). "We are going to have to further increase what we charge customers but how are people going to pay?"

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

The boss 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 Stamenov said on public radio BNR.

Others have a good heart against bad luck: "Yes, it will be more expensive but it will not be impossible to work", confides to AFP Krassen Kurktchiev, head of the group of household products and cosmetic care Ficosota, which has already started organizing themselves to reduce their use of gas.

In this Balkan nation, traditionally close to Moscow, resolutely pro-European Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has promised to speed up the search for new sources of supply.

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

 

42 days of reserves

 

The government is also in negotiations to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States and Egypt, which is currently highly sought after in Europe as an alternative to Russian gas.

Bulgaria also has reserves at the Chiren depot (north-west), which can cover a large part of consumption for 42 days, according to the head of the operator Bulgartransgaz Vladimir Malinov.

For now, the spring temperatures have softened the blow for Bulgarian households, some of whom still remember the long gas cut in January 2009, at the height of winter, already because of a Russian-Ukrainian dispute.

Since then, diversification has been constantly pushed back.

Gazprom's decision is "a unique opportunity" to finally free itself from Russia's energy grip, says Martin Vladimirov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy based in Sofia.

But this process cannot be done in a day and above all, the expert warns against a maneuver by Russia which would act behind the scenes to replace the Bulgarian national gas company with more expensive intermediaries. Thus the Hungarian company MET, which negotiated the new deliveries, is close to Gazprom, he says.

"In the end, we could end up with an even greater dependence with degraded contractual conditions" and gas ... from Russia, warns Mr. Vladimirov.

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