Russia and Turkey agreed to build the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline in August 2016. This benefits Bulgaria’s and Greece’s ambitions to turn into a regional gas hub, even more so when potential supplies of LNG, shale gas, and natural gas from Azerbaijan are taken into account. Despite the V4’s opposing stakes in energy policy (not wanting to “lose” Ukraine), talks about an Graeco-Bulgarian "Anti-Visegrad Alliance" are exaggerated.
An old Bulgarian trauma tells us about the medieval leader Kaloyan who requested his coronation as an emperor to the Pope, only to be recognized the title of a king.
A similar disappointment overtook Bulgaria when the failure of the Gazprom-led South Stream pipeline became known in December 2014. The European Commission halted this undertaking citing legal reasons. South Stream would have ennobled the Black Sea country by bestowing it with an ample 63 bcm of Russian gas every year. Sofia's aspirations to turn into a Balkan gas hub, however, has not yet abated after the project’s failure. It continues to dream of distributing massive amounts of natural gas to its neighbouring countries, though it does so now by eying the fuel that is about to flow via Turkey to the Bulgarian border.
The realization of this vision would not turn Bulgaria into a regional gas empire, but a lesser title may also suffice to accommodate the country's ambitions. The geopolitical context evokes a historical tradition, for the potential kingmakers for Bulgaria are no others than Turkey and Russia: On August 9th 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and they finally agreed to resume the Turkish Stream pipeline project, irretrievably replacing the South Stream.
Turkey – the Next Major Gas Transit Corridor
The EU has long acknowledged Turkey’s significance as a transit country for Caspian gas from Azerbaijan. The Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP) which will implement this task is currently under construction. However, Azerbaijan has promised only a meagre initial 10 bcm/y of natural gas to the EU – less than 2.5% of the EU’s total gas demand in 2014. Turkey, craving to make the best out of the spawning pipeline, has thus been looking for other potential suppliers. Alas, it soon had to realize that neither Turkmenistan nor Iran possesses appropriate infrastructure to provide enough gas for the decade to come.
In such a context, Turkey cannot but welcome the Turkish Stream and its immense capacity of 63 bcm/y of Russian gas. These will be added to the 16 bcm/y that already flows through the Gazprom-led Blue Stream pipeline to Tukey.
The TANAP will pass on some of the Azeri gas to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), also currently under construction, which will divert 8 bcm/y to Italy, while 1 bcm/y will go to Greece and a further 1 bcm/y to Bulgaria – certainly a somber prospect compared with the 63 bcm/y Bulgaria would have received from the South Stream. But Putin provided consolation in 2015 when he declared that he was willing to involve Bulgaria into the Turkish Stream project. Nothing left but to hope that Brussels will acquiesce this time.
Tsipras’ Anti-Visegrad Alliance
Just a week before Erdogan and Putin met in Moscow, Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov had hosted his Greek counterpart Tsipras on August 2nd 2016. Bulgaria was named “one of Greece’s closest and most reliable partners” and an “important partner for the energy planning of the United States and the European Union.” At the same time, Greece is conspicuously celebrating a “Year of Friendship” with Russia.
Before visiting Sofia, Tsipras had expressed dissatisfaction with Visegrad’s handling of the refugee crisis. He ominously announced the establishment of an “Anti-Visegrad Alliance” that would comprise Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. Indeed, the four Visegrad states (or V4, i.e. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) nurture a different stance regarding the mass influx of refugees than the Balkan countries; but polarization exists also beyond migration issues, for the V4 and the “Anti-V4” also compete against each other in energy policy.
The V4 wishes to keep Ukraine as a transit country, an argument based on the solidarity they feel is owed under the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), to which Ukraine is a member much cared for by the V4’s largest country, Poland.
With the creation of the EU’s Energy Union, another EaP-member, Azerbaijan, and a third one, Georgia (as a transit of Azeri gas before it reaches Turkey) finally entered the European energy radar. The whole plan was originally calibrated to diversify EU gas imports away from Russia.
The V4 acted in unison when they expressly opposed the Nord Stream 2 project. This pipeline would see an immense 110 bcm/y of Russian gas flowing into Europe via Germany. Poland shudders over the psychological impact of yet another Russian presence in the European north, and blocked the establishment of the Nord Stream 2’s joint venture on regulatory grounds of the Polish anti-trust office in summer 2016. Slovakia’s rationale for dismissing Nord Stream 2 may be based on its wish to maintain the roughly €700 million of yearly transit revenues for gas from Ukraine. – In contrast to the V4, the self-proclaimed “anti-Visegradian” Greece and Bulgaria remained silent on the Nord Stream 2 project, a silence which certainly posed no disturbance to Russia.
Greece and Bulgaria are now striving to become regional gas hubs for the Balkan region. Regional gas consumption will steadily climb up under the threat of climatic prognoses that foresee harsher winters for Southeast Europe. Bulgaria increased its gas consumption by 10.4 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The two countries’ ambitions are accordingly high. Almost twenty gas-related projects involving Bulgaria and Greece obtained the status “Projects of Common Interest” (PCI) within the EU’s Energy Union, thus potentially eligible for European support and funding. Projects such as the LNG Terminal in Alexandroupolis, the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) with a capacity of up to 5 bcm/y and the Interconnector Turkey-Bulgaria (3 bcm/y), or the Tesla Pipeline linking Greece with Austria (27 bcm/y) may, all taken together, become veritable game-changers of the EU’s energy policy. If one takes into account the gas reserves in Romania and the planned LNG Terminal in Krk, Croatia, one can attribute considerable energy-related significance to the “anti-Visegrad alliance”.
The EU’s energy strategy is rather favourable to the Balkan countries. Despite the EU’s official stance wishing not to “lose” Ukraine, Kiev’s role as a transit corridor for Russian gas has already been declining ever since the first Russian-Ukrainian “gas war” erupted in 2006. Gazprom may not even prolong the transit and supply contract with Ukraine after its expiry in 2019. Fresh memories of a perceived Ukrainian unreliability (which diverted gas addressed to the EU for its own use) provide the backdrop for the EU’s careful approach vis-à-vis their Eastern Partner.
On the other hand, the EU’s repeated call for diversification of gas supplies led to the (more or less passionate) embrace of the so-called Southern Gas Corridor, with Azerbaijan and Turkey acting as the major players in this grand project. The Southern Gas Corridor deliberately bypasses networks owned or controlled by Russia (hence the absence of Ukraine). Gas supplies from Azerbaijan, initially only 10 bcm/y, is set to increase with time, and supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan are likely to enter the pipelines one day. After the gas’ arrival at the intersection of Turkey and the EU, the neighbouring countries – Greece and Bulgaria – are naturally responsible for distributing the energetic fodder further into the EU.
And they will do so, even by involving Visegrad countries. The rhetoric of an anti-Visegrad is exaggerated, primarily targeting a domestic audience in a xenophobic context awash with reports of a mass inflow of refugees. The inflow of natural gas, on the other hand, does not reveal clear geopolitical boundaries antagonizing the V4 and the Balkan countries. Interdependencies are too manifold, and there is no lack of transregional cooperative gestures owed to common economic and energy security necessities.
Romania, for example, joined the V4 in signing the letter against Nord Stream 2. ‘Projects of Common Interests’ that complement the vertical corridor of the Interconnection Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) such as the Eastring (a gas pipeline connecting existing infrastructure between Slovakia and Romania or Bulgaria) or the enlargement of the bidirectional gas transmission corridor Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary-Austria demonstrate the states’ willingness to cooperate, quashing fears that the Balkan’s energy politics may trigger fissiparous polarizations along the European continent.
Bulgaria and Greece may strive to emulate the V4’s regional cooperation model to heighten the Balkan’s leverage on various policy domains including migration and energy. The region’s particularities (including the geographical and historical proximity to Turkey and Russia) may often incite regional interests that are different to that of the V4. Thus, calling it the “anti-Visegrad” is not groundless, but exaggerated and stems from a populistic exploitation of a momentary mood.
A Bulgarian-Macedonian folksong asserts that a large river poses no hindrance to love, for the lover can simply metamorphose into a fish and cross the water – – in our case, the geopolitical love affair traverses the Black Sea in form of gas pipelines. Since the originally planned project, the South Stream, obtained nothing but a non placet from the European Commission based on legal grounds in December 2014, the Gazprom-led pipeline will not arrive in Bulgaria, but rather in Turkey. This pipeline, now dubbed the Turkish Stream, poses no yoke to Bulgaria and Greece, for they wish to exploit this new situation by turning themselves into regional gas hubs.
Russia will continue to be the main supplier of natural gas to Europe. With the implementation of Turkish Stream, Turkey will enhance its position as a major gas transit corridor for the EU. This status had already been obtained a few years ago when the Southern Gas Corridor carrying Caspian gas from Azerbaijan to the EU first emerged as a geopolitical vision. The Turkish Stream will reinforce this by providing 63 bcm/y of natural gas from Russia that is likely to be carried further into the EU. As a comparison, Azerbaijan’s gas supply via Turkey will initially only amount to 16 bcm/y (out of which a meagre 10 bcm/y will head to the EU).
This is where the Balkan re-enters the scene. By eying this ample gas from Russia and Azerbaijan, but also shale gas and LNG from a variety of suppliers including the U.S., the two Balkan countries Bulgaria and Greece are vying to become regional gas hubs, partly in rivalry, but also partly in cooperation with the Visegrad states. The V4 would rather endorse the maintenance of Ukraine’s position as a major transit country, whereas Bulgaria and Greece wish to see Russian gas flowing through the Black Sea. But the wording of an “Anti-Visegrad Alliance”, which arose from the context of the refugee crisis, seems exaggerated in the energy domain. Nonetheless the term bears witness to a growing “region-ness” of the V4 and its external perception as a collective political actor with heightened leverage; regional actors from the Balkan may wish to emulate the V4’s model of regional cooperation.
Eurostat, Natural gas consumption statistics, July 2016, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Natural_gas_consumption_statistics
Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, Russian Gas Transit Across Ukraine Post-2019, February 2016, https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Russian-Gas-Transit-Across-Ukraine-Post-2019-NG-105.pdf
Natural Gas World, Greece, Bulgaria Seal the Deal on IGB, December 11th 2015, http://www.naturalgaseurope.com/greece-and-bulgaria-agreement-igb-27058
Institute of Energy for South-East Europe, Putin Says Russia Ready to Extend Turkish Stream Pipeline to Bulgaria, http://www.iene.eu/putin-says-russia-ready-to-extend-turkish-stream-pipeline-to-bulgaria-p1362.html
Euractiv, Tsipras to ‘upgrade’ ties with Sofia after Turkish turmoil, August 1st 2016, https://www.euractiv.com/section/transport/news/tsipras-to-upgrade-ties-with-sofia-after-turkish-turmoil/
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European Commission, Projects of common interest, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/infrastructure/projects-common-interest