Alternatives & Analyses
By the whims of fate, the Bulgarian prime minister will be in the limelight of global politics for another five minutes this coming Wednesday, January 8th. The local media’s curiosity on how exactly the Turk Stream has vanished in Bulgaria seems to have subsided. The backup story of the “expansion of the national transmission network,” has nearly been sold to the public.
At the pinnacle, an invitation to Borisov to attend the launch ceremony of the ‘non-existent’ in Bulgaria Turk Stream project.
He could hardly miss the company of Putin and Erdogan, but this presents an enormous challenge for Borisov. He has been trying desperately to build a “pro-Atlantic,” “pro-Western,” even “pro-American” image, critical for his deals with Russia. Yet the Bulgarian PM joins a photo op with the two leaders that epitomize anti-Westernism in the world.
If he declines the invitation, he will miss the opportunity to report progress to Putin in person, with the same adage – “work proceeds according to schedule and promised completion date would be met.” This is kind of loyalty or trustworthiness ritual, that now and then has to be performed in public. The bottom line of Borisov’s appeal – do not rock my boat; I will deliver.
He would also need to align talking points on a very complicated backstage plan, involving both President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regaring the Turk Stream in Bulgaria. The South Stream Transport BV is streamlining funding and project supervision, using as a front the Saudi Arkad Company, within a cooperation framework agreed between Gazprom and Saudi Aramco. At the same time, Borisov emphasizes his Balkan Stream smokescreen, allowing Russia and Gazprom to remain out of sight. The narrative is – this is a sovereign Bulgarian decision, in line with EU regulation and legislation, expanding the transmission network, in effect securing the safe transfer of Gazprom’s monopoly from the Turkish to the Serbian border.
Geopolitics at its best.
Declining Putin’s and Erdogan’s invitation, when both need at least one EU country leader at the ceremony to play the tune of the dedication to the interests of the European gas consumer, comes at a price. Borisov is neither able nor willing to pay it.
The invitations have been sent to Vucic and Orban, but their company does not help with Borisov’s image problem.
Erdogan, too needs to see Borisov, as his confrontation with the EU and the US in the East Mediterranean, builds up and the energy resources in the East Med are about to bypass Turkey, the same way it has helped Russia bypass Ukraine. The likelihood of a military clash increases by the day, and Erdogan needs allies in the EU and Borisov seems to be one of the very few, if not the only one.
The cereomony offers, what Borissov, perceives as a golden opportunity to sell himself as an indispensable intermediary between great powers. He will play this out in the media in Macron style – at this difficult time, the EU must maintain the dialogue and keep lines open, in the name of Europe, peace, and stability in the region.
In Bulgaria, such a political pitch would impress few in the informed circles of society but is a vintage populist bet, that explains his re-elections over the last ten years. Borisov creates a parallel reality of success and national pride, that the mass voter buys. The Bulgarian PM’s problem is in Brussels, Athens, Washington, and the international media – where his balancing acts inspire less and less confidence.
The critical challenge is not whether the Turk Stream segment in Bulgaria will be built, but whether the EC will greenlight Gazprom’s monopoly on its capacities. Both lines of the Turk Steam will deliver to Turkey much more gas than it will be able to sell to the local market. This reality has sunk with Putin and Gazprom. reminding them of their critical dependence on the entry to the EU market in Bulgaria, which is far more important to secure dominant market shares both to the West and to the North.
Not coincidentally, on January 8th, David Hale, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department, arrives in Bulgaria. The key intrigue in his meeting with Borisov is the message on the ‘non-existent’ Turk Stream – whether US sanctions apply and Washington will let it happen. The answer is a no-brainer. Wait to see the list of sanctioned companies at the end of the month.
The backgroung seems bleak for him as works on the Nord Stream-2, his usual excuse have been halted.
The moment Borisov joins the Turk Stream launching ceremony, his Balkan Stream disguise is over. His populist moves would impress few at the US State Department and the Department of Treasury, therefore the Bulgarian PM’s at his meeting with David Hale will seek reassurance that he is exempt from the sanctions. Such news he would gladly share with Presidents Putin and Erdogan later in the day. If the news from Washington are negative he is mostly likely to keep them for himself.
PM Borisov seems to overlook this risk and lean entirely on the Turk Stream’s Saudi connection with MBS in the hope that the latter’s close relations with President Trump will provide cover.
Although this line of thinking has its merits, the same way as President Erdogan has been spared the hardest part of the US sanctions, because of the White House.
The principal obstacle to this gameplan is the bipartisan consensus in Congress on the need to sanction Turk Stream enablers, regardless of country – Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, or Hungary. President Trump is unlikely to challenge the Hill at this critical time for his Presidency, not over a transit project. somewhere in Bulgaria.
On top Borisov is no Erdogan, Bulgaria is not Turkey. But yet again, it is not about the Balkan country and geopolitics shift – Bulgaria has risen in value for Washington, as a potential reserve base to host small parts of the military assets if the US has to pack up and leave Turkey. Greece, of course, will play a far more pivotal role, but the Black sea is also a critical theatre of operation in containing Russia.
Borisov’s main problem in selling his transactional deal is that it is not a fair and balanced deal – most of the immediate and tangible gains go East; the virtual and future ones go West. Bulgaria’s state energy companies act more like an affiliate of Gazprom, rather than join the balancing the PM does on the political front.
The national gas trader Bulgargas, for example, persists in ignoring and refusing a level playing field for LNG in the last tenders for the purchase of natural gas. As the logic goes, if you want to transact with Trump, the business trade-offs have to be comparable, sizeable and imminent. The big energy projects’ opportunity that PM Borisov paints to entice US companies and offer them a piece of the pie in NPP Belene, in Turk Stream, and elsewhere, is irrelevant. It is more meant to obscure the real risks and gains’ spread. The fact that the Turk Stream or the Belene projects will use US technology does not make them in any way less of a strategic vehicle for Russia’s control over the country and the region.
The mere fact that Dondukov 1 has made this invitation public. but has not accepted the invitation, should be seen not only as a trivial demonstration of his political vanity but also as a preemptive PR and propaganda stunt, meant to secure his control over the narrative before and after the meeting.
Stay tuned in to Borisov’s Facebook profile and make sure you do not miss the congratulations pouring from all sides – from Trump, Putin, and Erdogan. Part of the parallel reality he builds and wants us to believe in.
The real story behind what has happened at the meetings will come out watching the progress of the Turk Stream in Bulgaria.
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