Europe

Bulgaria picks up the pieces of cancelled Russian pipeline

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Media captionChris Morris reports on the confusion caused by the abrupt 'cancellation'

Stand on the sea wall next to the port in Varna and you can see the bits and pieces of South Stream piled up in front of you.

Hundreds of long black sections of piping - some on the dockside, and others still stacked on cargo ships.

They were supposed to have been laid beneath the gloomy waters of the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine and bringing Russian gas directly to south-eastern Europe.

But - suddenly and unilaterally - Vladimir Putin has declared the project dead. Gas, he said, will be sent to Turkey instead.

"It's really not clear what's going to happen to all these pipes next," admits Spas Spasov, a local journalist in Varna who has covered the project from the start.

No-one at the port itself was prepared to talk about the abandoned pipes, and the local South Stream office was closed for business on the day we visited.

Bulgaria says it still hasn't received any formal notification from Moscow that the project has been cancelled, and the European Commission is "seeking clarification".

"It's always been a bit of a mystery anyway," Mr Spasov points out.

"For example, it was never revealed - if Bulgaria were to sign a contract with (the Russian company) Gazprom - what the price for the transit of gas would be."

Corruption fears

While Russia wanted Gazprom to have exclusive access to the pipeline, the EU said no.

It was a stalemate sharpened and embittered by the dispute about Russian military actions in Ukraine.

And at the local fruit and vegetable market in Varna, there is a grudging acceptance that bigger issues are at play here.

Image caption Veselina Nenceva says she has other things to worry about besides the gas pipeline

"Of course I have heard about the pipeline," says Veselina Nenceva, as she wanders past with her young child. "But to be honest I've got other things to worry about."

"We all know that the tensions between Russia and the West will continue, and Bulgaria is in a strategic position. So both sides will try to have more influence."

Several people at the market talk about a lack of local economic opportunity. Perhaps South Stream could have made a difference - but nothing was ever taken for granted.

And then there is the ever-present suspicion of corruption in the tenders to build the pipeline in the first place.

"It's all about corruption, there's nothing but corruption in Bulgaria," says an angry stallholder, Sabka Dimitrova.

"But we're hoping the EU will help us - we're supposed to be part of the same family."

EU leaders have already said they will work with the Bulgarian authorities to find alternative sources of both energy security and revenue.

But there are several theories about why South Stream has suddenly fallen from favour in Moscow.

Some think it is a bluff, designed to put pressure on Bulgaria and to persuade Brussels to change course.

But others argue that the effect of sanctions, the collapse of the rouble, and other economic issues meant that the project was simply no longer one that Russia could afford.

"I think they overplayed their ability to offer material financial incentives to the political elite here," argues Ilian Vassilev, an energy specialist and former Bulgarian ambassador in Moscow.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Turkey hopes to become a regional energy hub after signing a new pipeline deal with Russia

"And when you see President Putin diverting Russia eastward into some uncharted waters, I think they have lost their ability to change the course of Bulgarian politics and history too."

Shared destiny

But local links with Russia run deep - whether it be the influence of Russian business, or the thousands of Russian citizens who own second homes along the shores of the Black Sea.

And there's something more - a shared cultural heritage.

Mass at St Nicholas church in the centre of Varna is pretty sparsely attended, but the Orthodox roots run deep.

"A lot of people in Bulgaria don't identify with the values of Western Europe," says the local priest Father Vassilij Shagan.

"So they look east to Russia. It's not about Vladimir Putin or Russian politics, but Bulgarians and Russians have a lot in common."

All of which makes a dispute about the fate of a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline rather more complex.

Even here in Varna, South Stream always felt more like a political project than a viable economic one.

But the game is not yet over, and the last twelve months have changed calculations across Eastern Europe.

The EU says Russia is no longer a strategic partner; instead it is a strategic problem.

And the Black Sea coast feels like another front line.

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