Russia is using gas deliveries as a ‘weapon,’ Bulgaria says

Slav Okov 4/27/2022

(Bloomberg) — Bulgaria’s government accused Russia of wielding natural gas flows as a weapon after cutting off flows and said the European Union member state will stand by existing contracts in defiance of the Kremlin’s demand for payments in rubles. 

The combative response by at least two top government officials in Sofia underscored a remarkable shift in Bulgaria, which has a deep history of ties with the Kremlin. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said Wednesday that he supported sending weapons to Ukraine and would seek parliamentary approval after his fractious coalition struggled to agree to make such a move.

“What we’re seeing is unprecedented economic aggression against Bulgaria,” Deputy Prime Minister Assen Vassilev told reporters. “The politics of pretending that there’s no aggressor isn’t working. We’re not looking for conflict, we’re not looking for war, but when the war comes at our doorstep, we’ll face it and we’ll fight the aggressor off.”

Vassilev said Bulgaria, which imports almost all of its gas from Russia, has already taken steps to shift to liquefied natural gas from Greece and Turkey over the last two months and that the nation, the EU’s poorest member state, didn’t yet need to impose restrictions. 

European gas prices surged more than 20% as Russia’s Gazprom PJSC confirmed that it halted gas flows to Bulgaria and Poland, saying it will keep supplies turned off until the two countries agree to Moscow’s demand for rubles -- a dramatic escalation with Europe as its invasion of Ukraine presses forward. 

But shutting out Bulgaria amounts to targeting an erstwhile ally, one of the Soviet Union’s closest until 1989, with former dictator Todor Zhivkov considering joining as the 16th republic in the 1960s. Two years ago, the country completed a 474-kilometer gas link from Turkey that allowed Russia to circumvent Ukraine in supplying gas to Serbia and Hungary.

Even after Petkov, a Harvard-educated anglophone, took office on a platform for fighting corruption, his government was hampered in efforts to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Bulgaria’s pro-Russian Socialist party threatened to leave coalition if it sent weapons. 

But Russia’s move to block supplies brought out a blunt response, with Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov saying the move is a violation of existing contracts. 

“Bulgaria won’t hold negotiations under pressure, with its head held low,” Nikolov told reporters in Sofia. “It’s clear that at the moment natural gas is used more as a political and economic weapon in the current war, and not in the context of legal-commercial relations.”

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