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Disputes Shadow Bulgarian-Russian Oil Pipeline Plan

Prague, March 18 (RFE/RL) - The status of a proposed Russia-Bulgaria pipeline that would allow Russian oil shipments to circumvent the Bosphorus remains uncertain, following last week's visit to Moscow by Bulgaria's Prime Minister Zhan Videnov.

Videnov and Russia's Prime Minsiter Viktor Chernomyrdin discussed the 700-million dollar project before signing energy agreements Friday. The Bulgarian Prime Minister also met Gazprom Chairman Rjem Vjahirev before the signing.

After returning to Sofia, Videnov called the project "historic," but said talks had been "tough," because, as he put it, differenct national interests are involved.

Gazprom is the major Russian partner in Topenergy, a joint Russia-Bulgaria firm. The newly established company plans to sell and deliver Russian gas in the Balkans. But Topenergy's operations have been delayed by disagreements between Gazprom and Sofia over ownership of the pipelines to be built on Bulgaria's territory.

The Bulgarian partners include the state-owned Bulgargaz and the private firm Multigroup, a financial group headed by Iliya Pavlov, a man Bulgarian media refer to as a Soviet-era Bulgarian secret service officer.

Two of Videnov's cabinet advisors sit on Topenergy's board. But the key figure is Board Chairman and Parliamentary Deputy Andrei Lukanov - the former Communist Party Central Committee member, who became Sofia's first post-revolutionary prime minister.

Relations between Videnov and Lukanov, both members of the governing "Bulgarian Socialist Party," have become increasingly sour in recent weeks. Lukanov recently accused Videnov of ordering police officers to follow him, and of attempting to establish a neo-Stalinist regime.

But Lukanov has been blamed in Sofia with selling Bulgaria's rights to pipelines on its territory to Russia. Earlier this month, Gazprom's Vjahirev visited Bulgaria in an apparent attempt to resolve the dispute. He left without success, prompting last week's talks with Videnov.

The pipeline project would bring Russian crude oil from the Urals directly to tankers at Alexandroupolis on Greece's northern Aegean Sea coast. It's construction would help allay Russian fears about strict new Turkish maritime controls on oil tankers passing through the Bosphorus strait.

The project calls for 300 kilometers of high-pressure pipeline to be built from Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek coast. It would link to an existing network that passes through Romania and Ukraine into Russia. Russia also hopes to ship Caspian oil to Burgas from its Black Sea port of Novorossisk.

Other disagreements also threaten the project. A dispute between Greece and Bulgaria surfaced last week, with Sofia demanding less participation by major Greek firms in the pipeline's construction. Bulgaria's Deputy Prime Minister Doncho Konakchiev accused Greece of promising contracts to private Greek firms before feasibility studies and economic reports have been completed.

Athens appears eager to get on with the project. Nikos Efthymiadis, President of The Federation of Northern Greek Industries, said Bulgaria has "political problems" related to the share distribution of a new international company being set up to design, construct and operate the project. That company would be called Trans-Balkan Pipeline SA. Efthymiadis says: "The prevailing factor must be business not politics."