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Bulgaria: Bakardjiev Basks In Moscow Triumph

Sofia, 26 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgarian Vice Premier Evgeni Bakardjiev returned in apparent triumph last week from a two-day visit to Moscow to negotiate Bulgaria's hitherto uncertain natural gas supplies from Russia.

Bakardjiev had spent eight hours of those two days in strenuous negotiations with the head of the Russian corporate giant, Gazprom, Rem Vyakhirev. Word of the terms that Bakardjiev won became the top story in Bulgarian news. He returned home to a tumultuous welcome.

For months what Bulgarians called their "gas problem" had stood unresolved, prompting rumors that organized crime had infiltrated the energy business, and speculation that Bulgarian-Russian relations were in jeopardy.

A remnant of Soviet days, Bulgaria remains dependent on Russian gas. Bulgaria inherited a network of pipelines for movement of Russian gas through Bulgarian territory toward markets in southern, central and western Europe. But all agreements between the two countries for supply and transmission had expired at the end of 1997 and no new arrangements had been reached.

At the economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met with Bulgarian President Peter Stoyanov. Chernomyrdin said then that Bakardjiev would be invited to Moscow, but almost two months passed before the invitation came.

Some of those interested supposed merely that the delay was caused by more urgent problems with which the Russian government had to deal.

But Bakardjiev had another explanation. He said: "Bulgarian citizens, caring more for their own interests than for the interests of the nation, have since September persistently misinformed the Russian government and the leadership of Gazprom, leading them to believe that our government, headed by Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, was doomed to fall within a month." He made the statement at an improvised press conference upon his return from Moscow.

Whatever the true reason for delays, the fog now has been cleared. A protocol signed by Bakardjiev and Vyakhirev establishes a completely new kind of relationship. It replaces all previous agreements and specifies five main points on which the two sides reached consensus:

Gas will be supplied to Bulgaria and will be transmitted through its territory without the participation of commission-taking intermediaries.

The joint Bulgarian-Russian firm Topenergy, which has been the agent for supply and transit, will become a 100 percent Russian company.

Russia guarantees that the flow of gas to Bulgaria will be maintained, and will be increased as required.

Bulgaria will own the pipelines on Bulgarian territory.

The price of the gas for Bulgaria and transit taxes will be flexible and consistent with market price.

The first two points, providing that Topenergy is to be owned by Gazprom, mean that Topenergy will cease to be an intermediary in the gas trade between the two countries, and will become a dealer for the Russian gas giant without a right to commissions.

The Bulgarian state-owned company Bulgargas, partner in Topenergy, will sell its shares to Gazprom.

But how will the two private Bulgarian partners, Overgas and Multigroup, be induced to sell their shares, after having refused to do so when Bulgargas sought to buy them out some months ago? An intriguing answer was given this time in Moscow by Gazprom's Vyakhirev himself. "This will be my concern. Nobody has ever denied anything to me. I have the means to make them sell."

Bakardjiev and Vyakhirev announced after signing the protocol that transmission of gas through Bulgaria will be tripled by 2010. Vyakhirev said also that Gazprom is prepared to invest in building pipelines on Bulgarian territory toward Turkey and westward toward Macedonia and Serbia.