Energy Is Pulling Bulgaria Back Into Russia’s Orbit

After a break with Moscow, the new caretaker government in Sofia is poised to realign with the Kremlin by signing a new contract with Gazprom.

By , a freelance writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) and then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov take part in the inauguration ceremony of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB) gas pipeline, in Komotini, Greece, on July 8.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) and then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov take part in the inauguration ceremony of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB) gas pipeline, in Komotini, Greece, on July 8.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) and then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov take part in the inauguration ceremony of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB) gas pipeline, in Komotini, Greece, on July 8. Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

Bulgaria’s caretaker government had only been only in power for three days before protesters showed up in front of the president’s office calling for the government to resign. The Sofia demonstrations were prompted by the news that the new government was considering restarting its contract with the Russian energy giant Gazprom after Bulgaria’s gas supply was cut in April. “This isn’t Moscow,” protesters chanted, a common refrain at Sofia demonstrations.

Gazprom covered more than 90 percent of Bulgaria’s gas supply until the country, along with Poland, refused to pay in rubles. The EU had set a goal of ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels before the end of the decade, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Bulgaria was one of the first countries to have gas supplies cut as Russia weaponized its control over the bloc’s supply.

The government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who refused Russia’s demands in April, lost a vote of no confidence in June. The coalition government he was leading dissolved, and, in August, a new caretaker government was installed by President Rumen Radev, an independent aligned with the Russia-sympathizing Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

Bulgaria’s caretaker government had only been only in power for three days before protesters showed up in front of the president’s office calling for the government to resign. The Sofia demonstrations were prompted by the news that the new government was considering restarting its contract with the Russian energy giant Gazprom after Bulgaria’s gas supply was cut in April. “This isn’t Moscow,” protesters chanted, a common refrain at Sofia demonstrations.

Gazprom covered more than 90 percent of Bulgaria’s gas supply until the country, along with Poland, refused to pay in rubles. The EU had set a goal of ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels before the end of the decade, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Bulgaria was one of the first countries to have gas supplies cut as Russia weaponized its control over the bloc’s supply.

The government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who refused Russia’s demands in April, lost a vote of no confidence in June. The coalition government he was leading dissolved, and, in August, a new caretaker government was installed by President Rumen Radev, an independent aligned with the Russia-sympathizing Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

Standing up to Gazprom in April was a major shift in Bulgaria’s approach to Russia. But the caretaker government can, in their short time in power, reorient the country.

The caretaker government came into office with fatalist messages, especially about Bulgaria’s energy supply. One of its main accusations: blaming the prior government for failing to secure enough gas for winter. Before leaving office, the Petkov government oversaw the completion of a gas interconnector with Greece and secured seven tankers of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG), but both arrangements had final steps the caretaker government needed to complete.

Instead, the new leadership—appointed to bridge the gap until elections on Oct. 2—has been paving a path back to Gazprom. In a press conference on Aug. 22, interim Energy Minister Rossen Hristov said that a return to the Russian provider was “inevitable.”

Standing up to Gazprom in April was a major shift in Bulgaria’s approach to Russia. But the caretaker government can, in their short time in power, reorient the country. That’s why “This situation should not be underestimated,” said Genady Kondarev, a regional analyst for the climate think tank E3G. “Bulgaria is a geopolitical switch at the moment, which makes us more important than just seeing Bulgaria as a place with a small gas consumption.”


For much of the past decade, the country was governed by Boyko Borissov, who walked the line of publicly supporting the EU while carrying out projects that served Russian interests, including the rapid completion of the Turkish Stream pipeline that carries gas from Russia. Borissov lost his grip on power in 2021 after months of anti-corruption protests, kicking off a year with three national elections.

After the first two failed to yield viable governments, the third was won by We Continue the Change, a new party founded by the caretaker government ministers who led the country during last year’s political interregnum, including Petkov. (The continued “change” being their ongoing work of exposing and stopping entrenched corruption.) Although they were the top vote-getters and succeeded in forming a coalition, it was shaky truce among four parties including the BSP.

The BSP has a long history of ties to Russia. The current party is the direct descendent of the old Bulgarian Communist Party, which was a loyal partner to the Soviet Union. Bulgaria is now a member of NATO and the EU but “has been perceived as a Trojan horse for energy policy in the EU for a very long time,” said Kostantsa Rangelova, a senior analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy think tank. “And geopolitics play a really crucial role in what’s happening here.”

After Petkov was ousted as prime minister, he called out Russian influence as the deeper reason for his government’s collapse.

President Radev, who installed the current government, has called Bulgaria’s shift away from Russia a strategic error; more recently, he condemned the war in Ukraine but stopped short of endorsing military support. Since taking power in early August, the caretaker government has yanked Bulgaria’s energy policy back from its EU focus earlier this year toward alignment with Moscow.

“We call this state capture,” Rangelova said. “We have Russia’s political, geopolitical, and economic interests being defended from the inside.”


On Oct. 2, Bulgaria will hold its fourth elections in under two years. The current front-runners are a resurgent Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), Borissov’s center-right party, and We Continue the Change, both polling above 20 percent. The far-right Revival party has also nearly doubled its support to 9 percent since the invasion of Ukraine on a strong nationalist, pro-Russian message.

But securing gas supplies for winter is happening now, not after the elections. So even though the caretaker government should only govern until early October, its decisions on energy policy will have an impact beyond its time in power.

Restarting a contract with Gazprom comes with plenty of risks, experts say. It could jeopardize both EU funds and overall solidarity within the bloc, which has opposed the war in Ukraine. It would also leave Bulgarians exposed to Russia’s whims this winter. After all, Moscow has cut supplies before and could do it again. Even countries like Germany that agreed to Russia’s request for payment in rubles have had their gas cut.

Even though the caretaker government should only govern until early October, its decisions on energy policy will have an impact beyond its time in power.

“It is so difficult to believe what the government is doing right now,” Rangelova said, “because the geopolitical situation is such that we are risking complete gas cuts from Russia to Europe.”

The Petkov government initiated the process of receiving tankers laden with U.S. LNG in May. But when LNG arrives by ship, it needs to be processed back into a gaseous state to travel through the pipelines that cross the country. Turkey doesn’t allow LNG tankers to pass through the Bosphorus, which would allow ships to reach Bulgarian Black Sea ports, so Bulgaria must make arrangements with Greece to have the gas arrive at its terminal and flow to Bulgaria.

The task of securing that final step for the winter supply of seven tankers was left to the caretaker government. At the same press conference where Hristov called a return to Gazprom “inevitable,” he said Bulgaria would only be able to accept one LNG tanker, because it didn’t secure unloading rights for the others.

Bulgaria uses about 3 billion cubic meters of gas per year, less than 1 percent of Europe’s overall usage. The fuel distributed by state-run Bulgargaz goes to industrial uses, like fertilizer and glass production, and powers the capital of Sofia’s heating. (Other cities have privately owned gas heating or rely on coal-fired district heating plants.)

“If we are in a situation where Russian gas is completely cut from Russia to all European countries, then you have certain countries which are so vulnerable that they would be under really significant pressure to actually comply with whatever Russia wants them to do to get the gas back,” Rangelova said. “This is why it’s such a powerful geopolitical weapon.”


Beyond the LNG tankers, Bulgaria could diversify its gas supply by completing an interconnector with Greece that’s been in the works for more than a decade and would cover about a third of the country’s usage.

Under Borissov’s government, the 1.5-billion-euro (about $1.5 billion) Turkish Stream gas pipeline that carries Russian gas across Bulgaria to Serbia and Hungary was built in a year. The Greece interconnector—about 113 miles of pipeline compared to nearly 300-mile Turkish Stream extension—was completed this summer, when Petkov celebrated the end of construction work with his Greek counterpart.

Since mid-June, “all facilities have been filled with gas and successfully tested with actual quantities of natural gas,” Teodora Georgieva, the executive officer for the Bulgarian side of ICGB, the joint venture company that will operate the pipeline, wrote by email. All main construction is complete, she said, and it could be operational by the end of August.

The interconnector could have received the final authorization to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Bulgaria on that timeline. But on his first day as the acting minister, Hristov stopped the project in its tracks by revoking approval of the supervisory board of ICGB.

After protests and public outcry, Hristov reversed course on the interconnector. The new management structure was approved on Aug. 15, and the caretaker government says the interconnector will be ready by October. But the return to Gazprom has been put back on the table, and the government has framed the work on the interconnector as “very difficult, so anything could go wrong,” Rangelova said.

“We’ll see whether it delivers,” she said. “I’m still quite doubtful.”


While the Greece interconnector would help Bulgaria diversify its gas supply, in the long term the country will need to start phasing out gas within the next decade to hit the EU’s Green Deal climate targets.

“Climate-wise, gas doesn’t have a very long horizon,” Kondarev said. “Already in the 2030s, we need to start thinking about a complete phaseout.”

A new Gazprom contract is expected to be long-term, locking Bulgaria in with the Russian supplier and tying the country to an increasingly expensive fossil fuel. While getting a better price has been used as an argument for re-initiating the contract, gas prices in Europe are currently around 10 times higher than the past decade’s average because Russia has continued to cut supplies.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had started to reduce supply to Europe; now, it has cut flows fourfold since last August, and the European wholesale gas price has soared to nearly 300 euros per megawatt hour. As winter gets closer, the cost of gas is only expected to rise.

The EU is trying to work the problem from the demand side. The bloc agreed to target a 15 percent reduction per country in gas use and is encouraging individual member states to stock up on gas. Energy efficiency is also part of the longer-term reduction, especially in Bulgaria, which has the most energy-intensive economy in the EU.

“We need a temporary solution,” Kondarev said. “The problematic moment is this winter. And Gazprom is simply an unreliable provider. It’s a geopolitical weapon.”

If Bulgaria does restart a contract only to have Russia cut the gas again, individual countries would be competing to secure supplies during winter, when needs and costs are highest.

“In this current situation, everybody dealing on their own is a recipe for disaster,” Kondarev said. “Small countries like us will cannibalize each other.”

Ashira Morris is a freelance writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Twitter: @AshiraMorris

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