Of South Stream and European Parliament elections

European Parliament election campaigns in member states often pass with little to no discussion of the pan-European issues – the empty platitudes about the chance to influence EU policy, offered by politicians, hardly qualifying as informed debate.

The more recent arrivals to the bloc, such as Bulgaria, appear to be particularly susceptible to this trend (the reasons for that being many and outside the scope of this piece). But for once, this year’s campaign in Bulgaria did feature a talking point that is of interest to both Sofia and Brussels.

That talking point is the proposed South Stream pipeline, the Kremlin’s ambitious undertaking meant to wipe out Ukraine from the European gas transit map, which the ruling axis in Bulgaria, the socialists in particular, has been pursuing with the fervour of an aged movie star calling up studio executives to ask for one last shot at the big time.

None other than socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, the president of the Party of European Socialists and the top name on the socialist ticket (although he has said he does not plan to take his MEP seat), was among the first to use South Stream as an example of how the European Parliament can influence the everyday life Bulgarians.

Stanishev was referring to a European Parliament motion on Ukraine last month, which recommended that the pipeline “should not be built” – the Bulgarian socialists, whose MEPs abstained from the vote, have been touting South Stream as a project that would provide thousands of jobs and spur economic growth in the country.

It also provided a convenient additional avenue of attack against GERB, the main opposition party and the biggest rival to Stanishev’s socialists in domestic politics over the past seven years, whose MEPs voted “aye” on the motion, thus giving the socialists the opening to accuse GERB of going against Bulgaria’s interests.

Although GERB is ostensibly open to the prospect of building South Stream, this support comes with the significant proviso that the pipeline should conform to EU regulations, namely the Third Energy Package that requires a separation between pipeline operators and gas traders – in the case of South Stream, Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom is both providing the gas and simultaneously the biggest shareholder in the project companies set up to build and operate different sections of the pipeline.

Ultra-nationalist party Ataka, which has taken the most pro-Russian stance in Bulgarian Parliament since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine (the party’s leader, Volen Siderov, even launched the Ataka campaign in Moscow), duly toed the Kremlin line about the risks posed by Ukraine to gas transit flows and how Bulgaria needed to get South Stream built as soon as possible.

GERB, meanwhile, sought to use the pipeline project to pop the socialists’ electoral balloons, citing the government’s “failure on South Stream” as one of the reasons for tabling a vote of no confidence in the cabinet of Plamen Oresharski. This endeavour appears doomed to failure, as Parliament’s scheduled debate on the motion, on May 23, is widely expected to be postponed until after the European Parliament elections, as the ruling coalition’s MPs are reportedly not going to show up for work.

The Reformist Bloc has been the most dogged opponent of the project throughout the campaign, making public documents that, the party says, show that the amendments to Bulgaria’s Energy Act, passed at first reading by the National Assembly, that would effectively put South Stream outside the scope of EU rules were not merely lobbied for by the project company, South Stream Transport, but drafted by it.

The government denied the charges, saying that the changes had been discussed with South Stream Transport, but were not the company’s initiative or “passed under its pressure”.

The populist Bulgaria without Censorship party has mostly stayed out of the debate on this issue, although its leader, breakfast TV show host turned rabble-rouser Nikolai Barekov did at one point suggest that the topic should be shelved until after the new European Commission takes office.

Among the parties credited with a strong chance of winning one of Bulgaria’s 17 MEP seats in the next European Parliament, only the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – the other half of the ruling axis – has remained on the sidelines concerning South Stream, but that is understandable given that its traditionally cohesive voter base (predominantly the Turk ethnic minority) does not harbour strong feelings either in favour or against the pipeline.

(Photo: gazprom.ru)



Alex Bivol

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