The Belene nuclear project, Bulgaria’s radioactive political issue

The farce into which Bulgaria’s planned national referendum on whether to proceed with the Belene nuclear power station has rapidly descended is an illustration of just how radioactive the issue has proved for every government and political party that has touched it.

At this writing, both the opposition socialists that drove the campaign to hold the referendum, and the government that has endorsed the idea, stand to lose. The political pitfalls are made that much deeper by the timing of a referendum just months before Bulgarians will go to the polls in the 2013 parliamentary election.

A long look at the history of the Belene saga is a reminder that the word “nuclear” is an anagram of the word “unclear”.

This has been amply illustrated in recent days, amid the dual disputes about the wording of the referendum question and whether the referendum could be constitutional, but also is illustrated by the unfortunate antecedents of the Belene project itself.

The project dates from the time of the communist People’s Republic of Bulgaria, with discussions recorded as having begun in the 1970s – a time that, obviously, predated the notion of public consultation or even environmental impact assessments in the modern sense; Belene also predates the beginnings of Bulgaria’s own environmental movement (and even that, it now seems, did not lack the hand of State Security in the laying of its foundations).

The project was approved by Bulgaria’s communist government in March 1981. According to environmental lobby groups that have tracked the project, Soviet scientists had misgivings about Belene, notably on the topic of its location – the anti lobby likes to point out that in Svishtov, about 11km from the Belene site, a 1977 earthquake led to a large number of deaths.

But at the time the Bulgarian Academy of Science enthusiastically endorsed the project, although this position was reversed immediately after the end of the Cold War.

The foundations were laid in 1987, but three years later came not only the reversal of the Academy of Science’s endorsement, but also protests by residents of Svishtov, along with rapid realisation by the immediate post-Zhivkov administration that Bulgaria was in far too parlous a financial position to proceed with Belene. In March 1991, a few days short of the 10th anniversary of initial approval of Belene, a committee of the then-Grand National Assembly dismissed Belene as untouchable from an environmental and economic point of view.

One might also mention, difficult as it is to measure, the extent to which anti-Russian or pro-Russian political sentiment affects attitudes of Belene. This is a widely denied thesis; no camp would admit to be driven by emotion, political or otherwise.

Go deeper, however, beyond emotion and one encounters a web of real or imagined political and economic dependency or otherwise of some of the players in relation to Moscow. Some in the anti-Belene camp have suggested a nexus of interests among Russian players, local Bulgarian controversial business groups and political players that have pushed the project. The anti camp has gone so far as to allege that they have been recipients of death threats, which they claim come from Bulgarian business people with ties to Russia.

Royal flush

It was in 2002 that the then-government headed by former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg revived Belene.

This government had the previous year defeated the right-wing government headed by Ivan Kostov, a politician whose career is defined in part by an apparent hostility to Russia, still clearly associated in his mind with the communist era – and perhaps more lately, not only that.

With Kostov in self-imposed internal political exile and his right-wing party in disarray and the socialists under Sergei Stanishev then at the beginning of the revival that would return them to power in 2005, Saxe-Coburg caused national astonishment by announcing that Belene would go ahead.

In Saxe-Coburg’s description, Belene would be built in compliance with all contemporary reliability and safety requirements and its completion would secure Bulgaria’s energy independence for years to come.

Bulgaria would abide by agreements with the EU, including commitments undertaken by previous governments (Sofia already had agreed to shut down two units at Kozloduy as a trade-off against Bulgaria’s eventual admission to the EU) and, Saxe-Coburg said, “we will not betray the national interest in the area of nuclear power generation”.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg and Vladimir Putin at a June 2002 meeting. Photo:

A tender procedure resulted in a four billion euro deal with a Russian-French-German consortium of Atomstroyexport, Areva and Siemens, respectively, to deliver the reactors. But then began the saga of seeking a loan to finance the Bulgarian share of the project – a saga that was to outlast the Saxe-Coburg government and end in an admission of defeat by BNP Paribas, which had been appointed as the consultant to find the money, three years into Stanishev’s socialist-led coalition.

As noted, apart from public surprise at the revival of Belene by Saxe-Coburg’s administration, self-identified as in the liberal range of the political spectrum, Belene has long been associated with the party that is the lineal successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party. Stanishev and former president Georgi Purvanov, Stanishev’s predecessor as socialist leader, have been among the most notable cheerleaders for Belene, along with conducting the most cordial policy with Moscow of any recent Bulgarian government. This closeness has been the only political liability for the socialists (although any carping will depend on where a politician or voter stands regarding relations with the Kremlin) because it opened them to claims of binding Bulgaria to Russia in energy and economic dependence.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Stanishev, January 2008. Photo:

More lately, of course, as will be seen below, the socialist pro-Belene campaign has opened them to critical questioning as to why they failed to get the project underway in their years in office, from 2005 to 2009.

For the socialists, getting the revival of Belene on to the political agenda in the latter half of 2012 has been a gain and has made the saga all that more perplexing, with the current centre-right government apparently having lost the initiative.

But the socialists also have other issues to answer, even if few outside their circle seem to make much of an effort to ask the questions. Writing in March 2012, Krassen Stanchev, head of the board of the Institute of Market Economics, raised the issue of the opportunity cost of not having upgraded thermal power plants that use local resources as input.

This was a question of the deliberate omission and improper actions of the past and present governments, Stanchev said.

“Their (the thermal power plants) capacity is equal to the estimated power of Belene and their eventual upgrade to meet EU standards for emissions would be equal to 10 to 20 per cent of the resources wasted for far on Belene,” he said.

Fair question

The current centre-right government headed by Boiko Borissov has turned in an exceedingly strange performance on Belene and on Russian-linked energy and other issues in general.

Moscow and the Russian media sent a number of disapproving signals in the first months of the Borissov administration as Sofia, under Borissov, appeared set to back away from all Russian-linked projects. The Russian press even let it be known that at their first meeting after Borissov took office as prime minister, Vladimir Putin felt that the Bulgarian had been insufficiently respectful (deferential?) towards him.

But, after all, Borissov had said that he would re-examine all the energy projects supported by his favourite Aunt Sally, the 2005/09 tripartite coalition. These projects are Belene, Bourgas-Alexandroupolis and South Stream, the “grand slam” in Purvanov’s appellation.

Boiko Borissov. Photo: European People’s Party

However, it is wrong to portray Belene as a “Russian project”. Since its revival, it has been the subject of interest and/or involvement by US and EU companies.

Abandoning Belene, ultimately, is more than nose-thumbing in the direction of Moscow or the Bulgarian socialists; it is a decision that touches, negatively or positively, a range of interests. This is the realpolitik of money and politics, which is why the current article has not mentioned environmental considerations for a while now.

Mainly, money.

When the decision by Bulgaria to drop Belene “for once and for all” came in March 2012, it was presented as motivated by financial and economic considerations.

Leading figures associated with the current ruling party – Borissov and President Rossen Plevneliev (elected on the ticket of GERB in the 2011 presidential elections) – continually underline Bulgaria’s fiscal discipline and stated reluctance to bind future generations of Bulgarians with unmanageable debt. In this context, a monstrously big-ticket item like Belene would be an ominously glowing anomaly.

Further, for the Borissov administration, operating with an eye glued to opinion polls, there is no evidence of overwhelming public support for Belene. Most polls show more Bulgarians in favour than against, but support has been declining, especially after the Fukushima disaster.

It is no wonder that Nancy McEldowney, when she was US ambassador in Sofia, described Belene in a diplomatic cable as a “lemon”

Unanswered questions

The sudden emergence of a US-based consortium shook up the saga a few months after the ostensible death knell for Belene.

US embassy reaction to the emergency of this consortium was reserved, with current ambassador Marcie Ries saying that in such circumstances, normal practice is to do due diligence on a would-be investor in a project of this scale.

Yet suddenly a turnabout was going on within the ruling party. The majority in Parliament were in favour of going ahead with negotiations with the investor, and then, um, suddenly they weren’t, because there was going to be a referendum.

The confusion was partly understandable. Some within the government and state administration had seemed well-informed about the existence of the would-be investors and others seemed, partly or entirely, out of the loop.

But the socialists had mustered enough signatures to petition for a referendum (making it over the bar even after the about 25 per cent of signatures that, on examination, had been ruled invalid). The current government was in no position to refuse to hold the referendum, especially, presumably, because it has no wish to hand ammunition to Stanishev who likes to portray Borissov as the sultan in a police-state-dictatorship of the GERB leader and former bodyguard’s creation.

However, the approaches to the referendum issue, apart from Plevneliev’s public enthusing on post-communist Bulgaria’s first-ever exercise in direct democracy, so far have seen less an exercise in heeding the vox populi than in political Wrestlemania.

Rossen Plevneliev. Photo: Berkovitsaboy

First, there have been arguments about the socialists’ proposed wording. This is an argument of some legitimacy, given that the proposed text has two questions instead of one. (In translation, the proposed question was, “Do you support the development of atomic energy industry in principle? And do you support the project for a nuclear power plant in Belene?”)

Plevneliev opened consultations with all political parties represented in Parliament, starting with the socialists, on the referendum question. He emerged to say that the parties were divided and that he might have to approach the Constitutional Court on the matter.

“There should not be a drop of doubt about the referendum’s lawfulness and compliance with the constitution and the state…I am not giving my final answer because we have different positions on whether the question, the way it is asked, complies with the laws and the constitution of this country,” Plevneliev said on October 15.

The right-wing Blue Coalition is among those that have questioned the constitutionality of the proposed exercise of the referendum. The Blue Coalition’s Martin Dimitrov went so far as to suggest that the public fight between GERB and the socialists about the Belene issue is merely theatre to conceal the fact that the country’s two major parties, in government and in opposition, are in fact colluding to build Belene.

Plevneliev has said that people should be asked about matters of strategic importance forBulgaria, not about technical or expert issues or specific projects.

In a television appearance, GERB MP Stanislav Ivanov said that the ruling party wanted no specific reference to Belene in the referendum. First, the two-pronged question could produce “yes” to the first question but “no” to the second. Second, Ivanov said, the law did not allow referendums on budget questions, and the Belene project was a budget question.

His opponent in the same debate, the socialists’ Maya Manolova, said that “770 000” Bulgarians had signed the petition for the referendum (Manolova’s figure is the one before 24 per cent of signatures were found to be invalid) and so the formulation of the question should be based on the wording of the petition.

Signing of the Belene referendum petition in Rousse. Photo: Ivan Stoimenov/

Bulgarian-language website Mediapool said that one scenario doing the rounds was that there could be a referendum with two questions, one that of the BSP and the other that of GERB, or that the BSP questions would be referred to the Constitutional Court, which would reject them, and the referendum would then be held on GERB’s question.

Stanishev said that there was no basis on which to approach the Constitutional Court, and on October 16 – according to a report by Bulgarian news agency BTA – “warned Plevneliev not to ‘go into a political game which is groundless, once the incumbent Parliament has approved a resolution on the subject of Belene’.”

To add to matters, senior GERB figure and head of Parliament’s legal committee, Iskra Fidosova, weighed in by saying that the word “atomic” in the question should be replaced by the word “nuclear” because the latter was the word used in Bulgarian law.

“I do not know where my fellow lawyers in the BSP got that from, I do not know what atoms are floating in their heads,” Fidosova said.

Political pasts

With all eyes on the 2013 elections, GERB also has been a keen proponent of the establishment of the special parliamentary committee that held its first meeting on October 18 to investigate the Belene saga, the decisions made by successive governments and how these decisions came to be made, and the feasibility of the project itself.

The socialists have decried this committee as intended to witch-hunt them.

Not that GERB has been able to regain ownership of the Belene issue. It emerged that an official from the National Electricity Company had written to the mayor of Svishtov about the laying of a cable that would connect Belene’s nuclear-generated electrical power supply to the national grid. This letter, of embarrassingly recent date, was trumped by the Blue Coalition’s Dimitrov as evidence of his conspiracy theory, and led to damage control by Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister Delyan Dobrev, who on October 18 announced the firing of the official concerned.

Dobrev, speaking just as the Belene special committee was about to meet, said that the letter amounted to “sabotage” of the Bulgarian government’s March decision not to go ahead with Belene. He said that he had spoken to the heads of the National Electricity Company and the Bulgarian Energy Holding and they had had no knowledge of the letter.

Questions, questions

Finally, one of the biggest questions pending relates to the campaign ahead of the referendum.

Assuming that the referendum goes ahead with a question something like those currently being circulated, with Belene if not specifically mentioned then at least in effect implied, the socialists will be for. The environmental lobby, naturally, will be against.

But what will GERB do? Will it say that it favours nuclear energy but not Belene? After all, the March 2012 decision was against Belene, not against nuclear power in Bulgaria, at all, ever. However, would it campaign for negotiations with the would-be investor on Belene, meaning that the party would then have to support a mandate for Belene, against the March 2012 decision but in line with the resolution tabled in Parliament after the emergence of the would-be investor?

And if GERB campaigns in favour of nuclear power and Belene, and so does the socialist party, does that mean that there will be a vote in favour and does it mean the project will go ahead?

Or is this sort of thing not actually decided not by public votes on principles but by proper environmental impact assessments (surely a sine qua non) and by matters of money (a sine qua non, surely)?

On television last night, public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television interviewed a man fresh from collecting his monthly pension. He had the sum in his hand, a grand total of 122 leva (about 61 euro), for his food, drink and other needs through the month. Not one to wallow in self-pity, the pensioner – who had a long working life behind him – indicated how it had become a luxury to have a kebapche (sausage) on his meal plate.

How will this man choose, when a referendum comes along? Will he vote for the promise of cheap electricity that Belene will bring, as its advocates argue? Will he vote against the saddling of debt on generations of Bulgarians to come, vote against the risk of nuclear disaster?

He was not asked about Belene, but he did have a theory about why the Bulgarian state paid him and his fellow pensioners such a pittance. Once Bulgaria’s pensioners all had starved to death, he said, the state would be free to indulge its taste for big-ticket spending.

Other European countries have made their own choices, either at government level or most recently in Lithuania, by referendum (they said no).

One way or the other, Bulgaria eventually will finally make its own decision. Until then, all that is certain is that Belene has proved to be – to refer to that other hazardous substance that glows in popular culture – political Green Kryptonite to all who came near it.

(Main photo, of the town of Belene, on the Danube: Clearvision)

Related stories: Bulgarian President to begin consultations on Belene referendum question on October 12

Socialist leader Stanishev wants voter turnout validity bar for Belene referendum lowered

Belene drama: Bulgarian Parliament sets up committee to probe feasibility of nuclear project

Belene: an unfinished play of indeterminate length



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.