Bulgaria’s Belene referendum campaign sends political rivals into meltdown

If there was any doubt that Bulgaria’s referendum on the future development of nuclear energy was a proxy war between Bulgaria’s two biggest parties, the last week of “campaigning” ahead of the plebiscite scheduled for January 27 will have successfully dispelled any such notions.

After three weeks of turgid “expert discussions” in prime time – meant to provide as much information as possible to Bulgarian voters, but successful only in drawing the battle lines between two irreconcilable camps – Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov went on the attack on January 21, accusing his main political opponents, the socialists, of spreading misinformation.

His claim was not new, but this time Borissov produced a letter from Germany’s RWE, at one point picked to take on 49 per cent in the company that would build and operate Belene, which, he said, proved that the pro-Belene camp was lying all along.

It was Borissov’s party, GERB, that deliberately removed the Belene project from the referendum ballot in Parliament (the original, submitted by the socialists, was a straightforward question on the future of the proposed power plant), and yet it has been Belene that has dominated the public discussion ahead of the plebiscite.

Sensing, perhaps, that televised “debates” – inasmuch as the exposition of two opposed viewpoints whose supporters mutually stonewall each other can be called a debate – were turning into repetitive recitations of well-established positions, Borissov took matters into his own hands.

RWE’s letter – only recently found in a cardboard box labelled “confidential”, he said – was sent in 2008, back when RWE was still attached to the Belene project, asked Bulgaria’s state-owned electricity utility NEK, the majority partner in Belene, to elaborate on how it planned to raise the funds for its half of the costs, which was five billion euro. RWE went on to oppose making any front payments to Russian contractor Atomstroyexport before a final contract is signed.

The letter, Borissov said, was proof that the socialists were lying when they said Belene would only cost 3.5 billion euro and when they blamed GERB for RWE’s withdrawal from Belene.

Socialist leader Sergey Stanishev, who was Borissov’s predecessor as prime minister (backed by a tripartite coalition), knew in 2008 that the nuclear power plant at Belene would cost 10 billion euro, Borissov said.

Furthermore, despite having no funding for the project, the Stanishev government took a 250 million euro bridge loan from BNP Paribas and “frittered away” the money, he said.

Stanishev retaliated in similar fashion, saying that Borissov was “a man for whom lying is a daily routine”. While never denying the existence of such a letter, Stanishev said that “it is easy to take out a small part of extensive correspondence and hide away the larger part.”

Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation and parent company of Atomstroyexport, joined in the condemnation of Borissov on January 22, accusing him of “speculating with numbers”. The price of building the two 1000MW units at Belene was 6.3 billion euro in 2010, a company spokesperson said.

That figure, however, only takes into account the cost of the reactors and construction work at Belene, but none of the related infrastructure costs – nor the 900 million euro Bulgaria has already spent on clearing old equipment from the Belene site and on consultancy fees.

(As an aside, when the Belene preliminary contract was signed in 2007, the cost of construction was set at four billion euro, but Atomstroyexport and NEK never reached an agreement on cost escalation clauses, which was the main reason that a final contract was never signed.)

The sniping continued in Parliament on January 23, when the ad hoc inquiry committee on Belene released an interim report of its findings. The report said that the Belene public tender was never concluded because no engineering, procurement and construction was signed; that the old equipment from the Belene site was sold to Atomstroyexport at a lower price than what was suggested by consultants and without the approval of the economy ministry; that 300 million leva allocated from the state Budget for the project were spent by NEK on other projects.

The findings are not new, but the timing of the report gave GERB and the socialists the excuse to launch into mutual recriminations.

Former socialist economy minister Roumen Ovcharov, a member of the inquiry committee, accused GERB of presenting only one side of the story and never examining the NEK replies to RWE’s letters. Ovcharov, who remained steadfast in claiming that Belene would only cost four billion euro, said that truth would come out and “we will learn what GERB has hidden in the Belene project”.

Economy Minister Delyan Dobrev countered saying that he trusted the financial estimates from HSBC (hired by the GERB Government in 2011, it was the HSBC report that provided the final nail for Belene’s coffin when the Cabinet decided to shelve the project in March 2012) and RWE, rather than Ovcharov’s figures.

On January 25, the two parties fired their parting shots – as with elections, no campaigning is allowed on the day of the referendum and the one before.

Ovcharov once again blamed GERB for Belene’s failure, saying that if the first unit began work in January 2013, as initially envisioned, the price tag would have been much smaller than the 10 billion euro that the power station would cost if it were to begin operations in 2020.

GERB’s Dian Chervenkondev, who chairs the Belene inquiry committee, called for a vote of ‘no’. “A ‘no’ to the shady deals and commissions taken by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a ‘no’ to the tripartite coalition, a ‘no’ to robbing Bulgaria, a ‘no’ to a new national catastrophe,” he said.

After its torpor-inducing start, the referendum campaign ended with a flurry of activity as both sides sharpened their talons in preparation of the fight for the bigger prize – winning the parliamentary elections in five months’ time.

With its ambiguous wording, the first national plebiscite since the fall of communism has failed to stir the spirit of Bulgarian voters. Several opinion polls in January forecast turnout at the referendum at about two million people, half the number needed for it to be valid.

The main reason for the voter apathy, according to the latest National Centre for the Study of Public Opinion poll earlier this week, is that most Bulgarians feel that the outcome of the referendum would have no any impact on future policy decisions on development of nuclear facilities.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer) 



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.