By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, March 10 Bulgaria hasn't stopped
preliminary work on the Russian-led South Stream gas pipeline
project, its prime minister said on Monday, but Sofia was
"closely monitoring" relations between Brussels and Moscow over
the turmoil in Ukraine.
The comments at a press conference came after Bulgaria's
foreign minister over the weekend said work on the pipeline
should probably be suspended for a few days or weeks in view of
the political upheaval in nearby Ukraine.
"Preliminary work on South Stream is being carried out, it
has not stopped. But in the next weeks we will monitor closely
the relations between (the) European Union and Russia,"
Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski said.
Russia has started building the 2,400 km (1,490 mile) South
Stream gas pipeline, intended to transport up to 63 billion
cubic metres of gas through the Black Sea to southeastern
Europe, bypassing Ukraine, by 2018. The aim is to bring up to 15
percent of Europe's annual gas demand via the Black Sea.
The huge South Stream project is a vital to Russian
aspirations to cement its position as Europe's dominant gas
supplier. While the project will not solve problems relating to
supply diversity, it will increase security of supply by
avoiding transit through Ukraine.
Disputes between Moscow and Kiev have led to fears for the
security of gas transit through Ukraine. A pricing dispute in
2009 led Moscow to turn of the taps in the middle of winter.
But state-controlled gas producer Gazprom's South
Stream plan has been frequently put in doubt because of legal
conflicts with the EU, which is seeking to wean itself off
over-reliance on Russia for gas supplies.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger is to delay talks
with Russia on the project, he told a German newspaper on
Monday, in response to the crisis in Crimea.
Oettinger said Europe was not facing a gas supply problem as
a diplomatic solution is sought to Russian troops taking control
of Crimea following the collapse of Ukraine's government. Energy
stocks are ample and the winter is ending, taking urgency out of
EU member Bulgaria has started preliminary works on the
pipeline on its territory, but has repeatedly said its operation
should be in line with EU rules.
Oresharski said Bulgaria was among the countries most
vulnerable to the escalating tensions between the West and
Moscow, and did not want to aggravate the situation.
The Balkan country is largely dependent on Russian gas
resources, as it meets over 85 percent of its gas supplies from
Russia's Gazprom, its only oil refinery is controlled
by Russia's LUKOIL and its only nuclear plant operates
two Soviet-build reactors that run on Russian fuel.
Bulgaria has started to build up its gas stocks to prepare
for a potential disruption of supplies. The government is
reviewing also its existing gas and oil reserves and seeking
alternatives to cope with any worsening of the Ukraine crisis,
it said last week.