In Bulgaria, the uncertainties of a life without Russian gas

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published on Friday 06 May 2022 at 07:24

In the entanglement of bright yellow pipes emerging from the ground, Russian gas is being carried in abundance, but Bulgaria, which has been imposed by Moscow for refusing to pay in rubles, is now barred from touching it.

Apparently, the interruption of deliveries by the giant Gazprom on April 27 has not changed much for the Ihtiman compression station, located 60 km 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 directed exclusively to neighboring Greece or Northern Macedonia.

Bulgaria, like Poland, paid for their purchases in the currency provided for in its contracts with Gazprom and did not comply with Moscow’s request to open a second ruble account in response to Western sanctions imposed after the attack on 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 will they 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 about 3 billion m3 of gas.

Skeptical, companies fear supply problems and rising prices in this poorer EU country, where inflation is breaking records.

“We are already on the verge of separation,” complains Valeri Krastev, owner of a bakery in Montana (north). “We will need to further increase the amount we charge to customers, but how will people pay?”

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

The boss of the Federation of Industrial Energy Consumers (BFIEC) does not lose his temper. “I can not believe that they are trying to convince us that this is good,” Konstantin Stamenov told BNR state radio.

Others have a good heart against bad luck: “Yes, it will be more expensive, but it will not be impossible to work”, confesses to AFP Krassen Kurktchiev, head of the household products and cosmetics Ficosota, which has already started organizing reduce gas use.

In this Balkan nation, traditionally close to Moscow, resolutely pro-European Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has vowed 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 the receipt of natural gas from Azerbaijan in large quantities from the Caspian Sea. He also met with Romanian leaders to discuss a joint project on the Black Sea.

– 42 days reserve –

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

Bulgaria also has stocks in the Chiren warehouse (northwest), which can cover much of its consumption for 42 days, according to Bulgartransgaz chief Vladimir Malinov.

Currently, spring temperatures have softened the blow for Bulgarian households, some of whom still remember the sharp gas cut-off in January 2009, at the height of winter, already due to a Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Since then, differentiation has been pushed steadily.

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 can not be done in one day and above all, the expert warns against a Russian maneuver that would act 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.

“In the end, we could end up even more dependent on degraded contract terms” and gas … from Russia, warns Vladimirov.

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