Russia demands EU promises on Balkan pipeline project

Moscow's major energy projects divide the EU and anger the US

Russia has told Bulgaria that it needs guarantees from the European Union before it can commit to routing a major planned gas pipeline through its territory, as Moscow's energy ambitions continue to divide the bloc and strain its relations with the United States.

Russia is deciding which path its TurkStream 2 project should take from the Black Sea to western Europe, just as its Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany nears completion despite strong opposition from Washington and many EU states.

US president Donald Trump and European Council president Donald Tusk are among those who warn against increasing the EU's energy ties to Russia and fear the new pipelines could allow Moscow to turn off gas flow to war-torn Ukraine, which now plays a vital and lucrative role as a transit country for Russian energy.

"I hope we'll be able to talk about further concrete steps [on TurkStream 2] once the appropriate guarantees have been given," Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday after talks with Bulgarian counterpart Boiko Borisov.

‘Reliable guarantees’

"I don't mean from the Bulgarian side, but when the European Commission gives reliable guarantees that in the future this project will not collapse or face obstacles. I hope our Bulgarian friends also understand this and do the appropriate work."

Moscow blames the EU for its 2014 decision to scrap the South Stream pipeline, which would have brought Russian gas directly to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. “The new pipeline shouldn’t suffer the same sad fate as South Stream,” Mr Medvedev said in Sofia.

Now Russia worries that Nord Stream 2, which is due to be completed this year, could be scuppered by new EU rules and US threats to impose sanctions on a number of European firms that are taking part in the project.

Those fears eased last month, however, when Germany reached a compromise with fellow EU members on how the pipeline will be regulated, including measures that may reduce its profitability for Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom.

Critics including the US argue that Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream would permit Moscow to pump gas directly to two of its biggest buyers, Germany and Turkey, while cutting supplies to smaller eastern European states, dramatically increasing Russia's leverage over neighbours with which it has political differences.

Transit revenue

Russian gas exports to Turkey now flow via Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, and Sofia expects to lose transit revenue when TurkStream starts to function this year – but hopes to gain it back by securing a place on the route of TurkStream 2.

After Bulgaria, Turk Stream 2 would cross Serbia and Hungary – which both have good relations with Moscow – and terminate in Austria; the rival route would see the pipeline pass through Greece and under the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

Mr Medvedev also confirmed that Russia was interested in competing for a contract to build a nuclear power plant for Bulgaria at Belene on the river Danube, after previous plans for the project were scrapped in 2012 due to funding concerns.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe