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Bulgaria: Anti-Communists Split Over Gazprom-Multigroup Deal

Sofia, 7 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgarian caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Sofiansky yesterday was blocked from offering favorable conditions on natural gas deliveries by Russia�s Gazprom to a private Bulgarian sub-supplier.

The anti-communist Sofiansky said his aim was to dismantle monopoly control of natural gas supplies by the state-owned Bulgargaz. He said the private Overgaz and other sub-suppliers need time to develop their own distribution networks so that they can compete with Bulgargaz.

Instead, the issue has brought into the open friction between Sofiansky and his likely successor, the anti-Communist Prime Minister designate Ivan Kostov. It also highlights the political influence of Bulgaria's largest private business, Multigroup, which owns Overgaz.

Sofiansky was telling journalists at Sofia's government building yesterday about his intentions to offer favorable prices to Overgaz. But he was interrupted in mid-sentence by his Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev, who disclosed a National Security Service report opposing the plan. Bonev is expected to continue at his post as a member of Kostov's new government, which is due to start work around May 20.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate Kostov attended a caretaker cabinet meeting yesterday that was debating the gas issue. RFE/RL correspondents in Sofia say Sofiansky appeared visibly shaken after the meeting.

Kostov later told state television that Sofiansky is overstepping his bounds by trying to make strategic decisions that should be left for the next government. Kostov said he is pleading Sofiansky to instead focus on preparing to transfer power.

Overgaz is owned by Bulgaria's largest and most influential private financial group -- the secretive Multigroup. In addition to oil and gas companies, Multigroup serves as an umbrella organization for large casinos, insurance companies, banks, trading firms and private security agencies.

Multigroup also is involved in a joint venture with Gazprom, called TopEnergy, that aims to construct a pipeline from the Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek Aegean port of Alexandroupolis. Multigroup president Ilya Pavlov is the TopEnergy board chairman.

The special conditions that Sofiansky wanted for Overgaz appear to stem from an agreement that Sofiansky signed last month in Moscow with Gazprom. RFE/RL correspondents in Sofia say the agreement stipulate distribution condition that are favorable to Multigroup and Overgaz.

That agreement has made Sofiansky the target of increasing criticism in the Bulgarian press. Critics this week are asking why Sofiansky was in such a hurry to conclude an important deal with conditions that, they say, are not favorable to Bulgaria.

Critics also say the move puts Sofia on the side of Gazprom at the time of a dispute in Moscow between Russia's economic reformers and a lobby of monopoly gas interests.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais said last month that the Russian government would meet on May 16 to discuss the reorganization of Gazprom. Chubais said price policies, the market for Gazprom shares, and financial disclosure issues all would be considered. Gazprom owes Moscow about $2.6 billion in tax debts.