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New Bulgaria Government To Back Russia Pipeline Plan

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov: "Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals."
SOFIA (Reuters) -- Bulgaria's new center-right government has agreed to stay onboard with Russia's planned South Stream gas pipeline but cast doubts over the future of two other joint energy projects.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said after meeting Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko that Sofia would benefit from the South Stream pipeline, designed to bring Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea and bypass Ukraine.

The new Bulgarian government, which won July elections, has been reviewing South Stream as well as plans to build a nuclear plant and participate in a trans-Balkan oil pipeline, to check if they match national interests and the European Union agenda.

Observers and diplomats say the review shows Bulgaria's readiness for closer ties with the EU after the previous Socialist-led cabinet irked Brussels and the United States by appearing to side with Russia.

The new government of the GERB party has already said it will give priority to the EU-sponsored Nabucco pipeline project, due to bring Caspian gas via the Balkans to Central Europe and thereby reduce the bloc's dependence on Russian gas.

"It was important for us to hear that Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals," Borisov told a joint news conference with Shmatko. "We equally participate in both. The benefit for us is that the Russian gas will come to our border."

He said work on the project will accelerate in the next two months.

Despite fears in Brussels that South Stream may hurt Nabucco's prospects, European companies are eager to join it.

Earlier this week, French power group EDF said it was in talks to take part in South Stream and Italian oil group ENI is already involved in the project.

The EU receives one-quarter of its gas from Russia and has so far managed to do little to secure supplies for Nabucco after a price row between Moscow and Kyiv disrupted supplies to Europe in January and Bulgaria was among the worst hit.

"When there is a lack of a coherent EU energy policy, in this game every country will do its best to serve its own interests," said Kiril Avramov of Political Capital think tank.

But he said Sofia's leverage in talks with Moscow was limited by the country's near full dependence on Russian energy.

Audit Of Nuclear Project

Shmatko said Moscow was ready to provide funding for some joint energy projects as Bulgaria struggled to raise money for the Belene nuclear power plant. He did not give details.

"We discussed the situation with Belene and we share the opinion of the Bulgarian side to make a quick audit of the project so that we can work out a joint approach...on funding the project," he told the same news conference.

The previous Bulgarian government had contracted Russia's Atomstroiexport to build the 2,000 MW plant and picked Germany's RWE for a 49-percent stake.

Soaring costs, which Sofia say could reach 10 billion euros, dwindling budget revenues, and lack of funding have prompted a rethink on Belene.

The new cabinet says Bulgaria does not need the extra electricity from Belene for domestic consuption and the project should be considered on purely economic terms.

Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister Traicho Traikov told the news conference Sofia would consider cutting its 51 percent stake in the project to attract more investors. He did not rule out Russian companies buying a stake.

Shmatko agreed to respond soon to Sofia's concerns about a planned oil pipeline due to carry Russian crude through Bulgaria to Greece. Borisov has said Bulgaria was worried about the environment and saw little benefits in the project.