The Role Energy Will Play in Bulgaria’s Upcoming Parliamentary Election8 min read

 In Editorial, Politics, Southeastern Europe
Though still very much in the thrall of summer heat, Bulgaria is awash with fears of the coming winter and the effects the energy crisis will have on local households and industry. These concerns, combined with a caretaker government that seems to be obstructing Bulgaria’s energy independence, have made energy a key concern for the upcoming parliamentary election in October.

According to the most recent (2020) data from the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), more than 25% of households in Bulgaria struggle to keep their homes sufficiently heated. Given the increase in fuel prices triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this number has undoubtedly since risen. This makes energy a key priority for Bulgarians when heading to the next parliamentary elections, especially given the current crossroads the country is at, between building a future of energy independence oriented along EU priorities, or a return to a heavy reliance on Russia.  

For “We Continue the Change” party, energy independence is key

According to the party’s programme, one of its main priorities is to rebuild Bulgaria’s energy system so that it is independent of foreign energy sources. In doing so, they seek to balance between a competitive economy and the green deal. Under the leadership of Assen Vassilev and Kiril Petkov, the latter acting as Prime Minister of a coalition government from December 2021 to August 2022, the party proved it would follow through on these promises.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Petkov made it clear that he would follow the EU line of decoupling from Russian gas dependency, while also attempting to keep energy costs for consumers at a reasonable level. Petkov’s efforts to update Bulgaria’s energy security were hastened following Russia’s decision to halt gas supplies in April after the state refused to pay for the deliveries in roubles. 

One of Petkov’s strategies was to complete the natural gas pipeline between Greece and Bulgaria, providing new grid connections to both countries and their neighbours, including Romania and Turkey. Inaugurated at the end of July, the pipeline was expected to supply up to 3,000 million cubic metres of natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, serving as an “energy bridge” between southern and northern Europe. 

As another measure, Petkov, with the assistance of the European Commission, signed an agreement with the US company “Cheniere” for the supply of seven cargo ships of liquified gas (LNG). These shipments — three in 2022 and four in 2023 — were expected to fill about half of Bulgaria’s missing quantities. 

Though all of these measures focused on gas rather than promoting more green alternatives, they did lead away from Russian dependence and open the energy sector up to much-needed diversification. 

A conservative caretaker government sees security in Russian gas

A caretaker government appointed by the more pro-Russian President Rumen Radev was sworn in on 2 August, with a mandate to run the nation until the snap elections set for 2 October. Led by Prime Minister Galab Donev, its main priorities are to avoid getting caught up in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, followed by securing the country’s energy supply, among other things. In practice, this has seen the caretaker government negate all the work former Prime Minister Petkov did to build Bulgaria’s independence from Russia in the energy sector. 

At the beginning of August, the caretaker government took steps to block the gas interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria, citing issues related to the certification of the project. Shortly after, the caretaker government announced that it would only accept one of the previously agreed-upon seven LNG supplies from the US — even though the price was almost €30 lower than that offered on European gas exchanges — blaming the high cost of reserving LNG slots in Turkey and Greece. 

Furthermore, the caretaker government has signalled its resolve to reconnect with Gazprom, which previously provided over 90% of Bulgaria’s gas, monopolising the energy sector. On 22 August, caretaker Energy Minister Rosen Hristov stated that talks would start with Gazprom, with an aim to restart the imports of natural gas. The Russian ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, has made it clear that this could only happen if Bulgaria paid for the gas in roubles, which would violate EU sanctions against Russia. While Hristov has emphasised that the negotiations will only focus on the old contract, which is set to expire at the end of this year, there are concerns the caretaker government will put all its eggs back into one basket by heavily focusing on Russian gas as the solution to the energy crisis. Evidence of this attitude includes the confirmation of key political appointments in Hristov’s ministry known for their friendly stances towards Russia, as well as the replacement of the Bulgargaz management with one more willing to negotiate with Gazprom.

While the caretaker government has claimed its focus is on securing enough gas for the winter and keeping energy prices low, Bulgarians are sceptical given the missed opportunities to take advantage of the LNG supplies and the Greece-Bulgaria pipeline. Due to rising fuel prices, Bulgaria has already banned the export of wood to non-EU countries, as demand has increased threefold, causing a timber shortage and its own price increases — while a year ago the price of a cubic metre of firewood was 90 to 100 Lev (€40 to 50), in the capital, the price is now 180 lev (€92). 

Voters face a choice between dependence and independence in the energy sector

According to a poll conducted by bTV, the current front-runners in the 2 October parliamentary election are Boyko Borisov’s centre-right party “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (GERB) and Petkov and Vassilev’s “We Continue the Change” (PP), seeing 22.4% and 19.1% respectively. While both parties state they are against the return of Gazprom as a gas supplier to Bulgaria, only PP has worked to create true alternatives. Borisov and GERB have previously enacted a number of anti-Russian policies, but the party has not been immune to Russian lobbying. For example, in 2011, GERB gave Lukoil a 35-year concession to the only oil port in Bulgaria for only €500,000 per year, a contract that is raising questions about the true priorities of the party.  

Given that each of these parties is strongly opposed to the other, coalitions will have to be made with the other parties voted into parliament. Based on the bTV poll, these include the centrist “Movement for Rights and Freedoms” (11.5%), the “Bulgarian Socialist Party” (10.9%), the pro-Russian far-right “Vazrazhdane” party (8.4%), and the reformist “Democratic Bulgaria” coalition (8.3%).

While the “Bulgarian Socialist Party” (BSP) and “Democratic Bulgaria” were both a part of Petkov’s coalition government, they differ in their position regarding Gazprom. The latter has made it clear they are against the reinstatement of Gazprom as Bulgaria’s gas supplier, questioning the interests of the caretaker government in rejecting the LNG tankers and not finding other suitable alternatives. The party has additionally called Gazprom a “geopolitical weapon” of Russia, claiming that only it and “We Continue the Change” are truly against Bulgaria resuming negotiations. In contrast, BSP has stated that though they are in favour of energy diversification, negotiations with Gazprom are necessary to ensure the stability, security, and predictability of gas for both the economy and the people. They propose a moratorium on the price of gas, water, and heating for household consumers; a programme to compensate businesses for high energy prices; and immediate talks with Gazprom.

The “Movement for Rights and Freedoms” (DPS) has avoided taking an openly anti-Russian position, with indications that they are not against negotiations with Gazprom. However, as an alternative solution to the energy crisis, DPS has proposed Turkish gas supplies, citing Erdogan’s friendliness and concern towards Bulgaria. It is debatable whether reliance on another autocratic leader is truly in Bulgaria’s best interests, however. Finally, the blatantly pro-Russian party “Vazrazhdane” sees the normalisation of relations with Gazprom as the solution to receiving cheap gas and oil. 

Locals protest in the capital while Europe waits to see the path Bulgaria takes

While the actions by the caretaker government have led to a series of protests in Sofia focused on anti-Gazprom sentiment, there is no guarantee that the October election will lead to a strong reversal in government action. However, the choice that is made will greatly affect the EU’s goal of reducing energy dependence across the 27 Member States and its success in supporting Ukraine as a unified bloc. 

The caretaker government’s decision to negotiate the resumption of Russian gas signals both an end to Bulgarian energy independence, and also the return of normalised Russian influence in the state. If the parties elected in October continue on this path, this friendliness towards Russia could jeopardise EU funds, as well as bring about a return of government-sanctioned Euro-scepticism. In addition, while Russian gas would be cheaper for Bulgaria, there is no guarantee Russia wouldn’t cut supplies again in case of any further actions regarding Ukraine or for any other reason, which would lead to a very unstable winter situation. 

Energy has become increasingly important in elections throughout Europe, and Bulgaria is no exception. It is now up to the voters to decide what path Bulgaria takes, and whether energy independence is worth the cost in the long run. 

Featured image: Artem Maltsev / Unsplash
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