Bulgaria accuses LUKOIL's Bulgarian fuel trader of breaching competition rules

SOFIA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Bulgaria's competition regulator accused the country's leading fuel distributor and trader LUKOIL Bulgaria, controlled by Russia's LUKOIL (LKOH.MM), on Thursday of abusing its dominant market position by exerting a price squeeze on its competitors.

The regulator said LUKOIL Bulgaria has put price pressure on its competitors by gradually changing wholesale price conditions and removing quantity discounts. That could limit competition on fuel markets and affect consumers, it said.

"Such behaviour by Lukoil Bulgaria represents a general strategy to limit the wholesale trade of fuels in the country, with the aim of strengthening its dominant position," the regulator said in a statement.

"The conduct constitutes an abuse of dominance both under national law and European Union law", the regulator said, adding that it opened an investigation following complaints by Bulgarian fuel company Insa Oil and the Bulgarian unit of Austria's OMV.

LUKOIL Bulgaria is part of LUKOIL group, which controls Bulgaria's only oil refinery Neftochim Burgas, has a transport and depot network throughout the country and operates over 200 petrol filling stations.

The company, which will have two months to defend its position to the regulator, said it had yet to examine the claim in detail but that it was working in line with Bulgarian and EU competition rules.

"The company has removed quantity discounts and thereby given access to its best price for all wholesale customers. In this way, not only large wholesalers, but also all participants in the wholesale market, including end-users, receive the lowest possible prices," LUKOIL Bulgaria said in a statement.

In a bid to protect Bulgarians from high fuel prices that have jumped since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the previous government had introduced a discount for Bulgarians buying motor fuels at filling stations.

Earlier this month Bulgarian President Rumen Radev met LUKOIL's chief executive Vadim Vorobyov in Sofia to discuss steps that could help lower fuel prices in the country.

Their surge is part of a wider European energy crisis since Russia invaded Ukraine in February in what it called a "special military operation" and the West responded with sweeping sanctions.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; editing by David Evans and Philippa Fletcher

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