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20 years on, energy keeps Sofia and Moscow close

Sofia — Bulgaria’s post-communist governments have boasted of their "pragmatic" ties with Moscow, "free from ideology", but 20 years after the fall of communism here, the politics of energy shape bilateral relations.

The ousting of dictator Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s longest ruling communist leader on November 10, 1989, a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, put an end to "the eternal Bulgarian-Soviet friendship," allowing Sofia to join the European Union and NATO.

But over 90 percent of the natural gas and 60 percent of the oil used in Bulgaria comes from Russia.

The Neftochim oil refinery, the biggest in the Balkans located in the eastern Black Sea city of Burgas, was bought in 1999 by Russian oil giant Lukoil.

Meanwhile, its sole Soviet-built nuclear power plant in Kozloduy, on the Danube, runs on Russian fuel.

A Russian company, Atomstroyexport, was contracted to build a second nuclear power plant at Belene, in which Moscow has proposed to buy a stake following the withdrawal of German utility RWE from the project.

And while supporting the EU’s Nabucco gas pipeline project, Sofia also joined the Russian-backed South Stream project to pump gas to Europe under the Black Sea, and the Burgas-Alexandrupolis pipeline to channel Russian oil between the Black Sea and the Aegean.

"Bulgaria cannot go without Russia where energy is concerned," noted a European diplomat in Sofia.

"But Russia also needs Bulgaria’s strategic position in the Balkans, while Bulgaria’s contacts and knowledge of Russia are useful to the EU," he added.

Bulgaria, a Slavic and Orthodox country like Russia, was freed from centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878 by Russian Tsar Alexander II. A monument to the "Liberator" still stands opposite parliament in Sofia, and another to the Soviet army can be seen nearby.

Nevertheless, Bulgaria was among the countries worst hit by the Russia-Ukraine price spat in January.

The gas crisis that followed showed that it was the only EU country with no alternative to Russian gas supplies via Ukraine. Bulgaria’s pipeline network also lacks key links to those of neighbouring Greece and Romania.

"The wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s pushed investors away from the region, while economic difficulties during the transition from communism did not allow the country to invest in diversifying its energy sources," explained Krasen Stanchev, president of the board of the Institute for Market Economy in Sofia.

Bulgaria’s dependence on Russia from the 1960s onwards resulted from the country’s huge foreign debt, according to recently opened secret archives, noted Stanchev: thus, Zhivkov asked Moscow in 1963 and again in 1973 to accept it as a member of the Soviet Union. Moscow refused.

"Bulgaria did not become so economically dependent on Russia because it was Moscow’s most faithful Soviet-era ally," noted Stanchev.

"It was the indebtedness, that it could not shake off until the very ousting of the regime, that dictated its faithfulness," he concluded.