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Bulgaria’s power gambit: Why the caretaker energy minister’s nomination sends a message?

The appointment of Vladimir Malinov, head of Bulgaria’s transmission system operator Bultartransgaz, as caretaker energy minister is raising eyebrows in the expert community and notably among those working on Russia’s state capture of Bulgaria. It echoes the reasons for the collapse of the Denkov government and the failed cabinet rotation. Current Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Maria Gabriel’s insistence on a prominent GERB figure for the energy post in her failed cabinet nomination further fuels suspicions of a larger context.

While control of the interior ministry, the intelligence services and the prosecutor’s office is understandably deemed crucial for Boyko Borissov, the energy sector is vital. It gives him not only a funding source but, more importantly, a leverage for geopolitical manoeuvres, possibly in collaboration with President Rumen Radev, to strengthen their international standing on the Russia-Europe gas trade and the strategic powerplay in the process.

Why Mr. Malinov?

Mr. Malinov, seen as the architect of the Bulgarian section of the controversial Turk Stream project, embodies this strategy. His tenure has been marked by the Bulgargas-Botas deal, where he played an instrumental behind-the-scene role, the stalling of the UGS Chiren expansion and the blocking of the Vertical Gas Corridor through deliberate foot-dragging in securing continuous transit capacity in the Trans-Balkan pipeline to Ukraine, highlighting his close alignment with Russian gas strategy.

The situation mirrors 2017, with former Prime Minister Borisov and President Radev, seemingly under Moscow’s influence, consolidating control over all key institutions of power in Bulgaria to push through Turk Stream.

Why now?

The current Turkish Gas Hub project, which adds new sources of gas to the original idea of Turk Stream – routing large volumes of Russian gas through Turkey and Bulgaria to the EU – faces significant hurdles. EU and NATO concerns about emboldening Putin by facilitating further gas sales to the EU are a major challenge. Putin’s postponed visits to Turkey underline this difficulty.

While Turkey undoubtedly has economic interests in the hub, the current climate dictates a more cautious approach in the face of EU objections, especially amid escalating tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine. The potential for renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine further complicates the picture.

The shrinking limits of the West tolerance for Russian gas

The West is unlikely to tolerate increased Russian gas sales and the consequent financial boost to Moscow’s military budget. Moreover, the future of gas transit through Ukraine remains to be seen. Recent attacks on Ukrainian gas storage facilities suggest a shift in Russian strategy to a more aggressive line. Just as Putin secured the Nord Stream and Turk Stream bypasses before invading Ukraine, he is likely to seek a similar backup route through Bulgaria ahead of his expected summer offensive to replace the current Ukrainian transit volumes of around 42 million cubic metres per day to Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. Hungary alone has been searching for new gas routes and sources as it nears the end of a deal that brings the country around 4.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas each year via Ukrainian pipelines. With Ukraine and the European Commission signaling a possible end to the transit contract by the end of the year, Putin is applying pressure and using President Erdogan’s influence to secure the route through Bulgaria.

The Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia-Hungary Gas Axis

While Hungary, Serbia and Austria appear eager to extend Gazprom’s gas access to the EU, Denkov’s government appears to be playing to the mainstream EU and NATO tune, refusing to say anything about future expanded gas flows. On the contrary, his government initiated a motion in Parliament for a BGN 20/MWh charge on Russian gas imports and launched a parliamentary investigation into the controversial Bulgargas-Botas contract, an integral part of the Russian-gas-via-Turkey-to-the-EU concept, further complicating matters for Moscow.

The Turk Stream legacy

Mr Malinov’s promotion to caretaker energy minister seems calculated to divert attention from high-level political involvement and to keep most actions at a supposedly “professional” rather than political level. His position as energy minister would allow him to conduct ‘business as usual’, potentially maintaining US and EC support while advancing Russia’s regional gas ambitions.

Over the years, the BTG head has meticulously cultivated lobbying networks to navigate the challenges of promoting “Russian” projects at the level of the European Commission and the United States. These networks now serve to facilitate bypassing Ukraine and funneling additional Russian gas into Europe amid Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and its gas infrastructure. Therefore, and given the moment, he is Mr. Indispensable.

As a significant stakeholder, Minister-designate Malinov is expected to assist GERB, MRF, and President Radev in steering investigations by the Turk Stream Roadmap Commission in the Bulgarian Parliament towards a favourable dead-end outcome—reflecting an alignment of interests among key players at the top of Bulgaria’s power structure.

Revelations involving Mr. Malinov, as highlighted by BG Elves investigations, demonstrate his commitment to safeguarding Russian interests, potentially at the expense of Bulgarian interests.

Last barrier to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s gas infrastructure lifted

Bulgaria’s potential increase in gas transit positions it as the only entry point for Russian piped gas into the EU, raising concerns about its vulnerability to the Kremlin’s destabilisation efforts in the coming months.

Rerouting the remaining gas flows from Ukraine through TurkStream to Austria, Hungary and Slovakia would remove the last potential obstacle to an all-out Russian war on the Ukrainian gas system, including the strategically important UGS facilities. This scenario mirrors the situation before the current war, when the launch of TurkStream, along with Nord Stream-2, emboldened President Putin’s decision to invade. A similar move now could pave the way for a more decisive Russian offensive in the summer, aimed at significant territorial gains and what the Kremlin could easily claim as a strategic victory.

Ilian Vassilev

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