Fast Reads


The status quo forces of Bulgarian politics geared up for an election year by introducing controversial last-minute changes to the Electoral Code. Their primary goal is to render preferential voting redundant. The proposal, introduced by the nominally oppositional Movement of Rights and Freedoms, was backed by the ruling GERB party but caused an uproar within the governing coalition, as well as the loud protest of parliamentarian and out-of-parliament opposition, including President Rumen Radev. The Bulgarian Socialist Party currently boycotts the National assembly on the matter, while the future of preferential voting remains hanging on the balance.

After a series of investigations, including by Capital weekly in Bulgaria and by the international investigative network Bellingcat, it was revealed that Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev might have been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok family back in 2015. The case eerily resembles the attempt to murder ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in the spring of 2018. It was only after the media revelations hit international media and the British secret services entered the investigation that the Bulgarian authorities which usually keep a low profile when it comes to Russia-related matters, took it seriously.

Bulgaria is moving a step closer to joining the common European currency. As part of the preparation phase to join the Euro, six banks in Bulgaria are undertaking an asset quality review and a stress test conducted by the European Central Bank in order to establish close cooperation on banking supervision with the regulator and join the EU's Banking Union. Results are due to come in July but so far the signs are encouraging, with the European Commission claiming that the tests are "going according to plan". The three biggest lenders and the three largest Bulgarian banks are falling in the focus of the review.

After the Commission for the Protection of Competition blocked the attempt of Czech businessman Petr Kellner to acquire Nova TV, one of the two largest privately-owned TV channels in Bulgaria, Bulgarian businessman Kiril Domuschiev signed a contract to purchase the media group. The price tag on the deal is 185 million euros or just as much as Mr Kellner offered to the Swedish MTG group that owns Nova. The deal will be financed by four banks - Unicredit Bulbank, DSK Bank, UBB and BNP Paribas Fortis, the Belgian division of French banking group BNP Paribas.

In December the Bulgarian government announced that it is relaunching the Hemus highway by injecting 1.34 billion levs into the project. Works on the 134 km-long stretch will be executed by the Avtomagistrali Company, a state-owned firm that often wins Road Infrastructure Agency public procurements, but usually subcontracts the actual works to other companies. Avtomagistrali director Stoyan Belichev said the company would need to hire 500 additional personnel and access to information request published by Bulgarian media showed the company does not have sufficient machinery to complete the work on its own.

Bulgaria is rushing to build the 484-km long transit gas pipeline that constitutes a diversion of the Gazprom project TurkStream from Turkey towards Serbia. On a 4 March visit to Sofia, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev reinstated the position of Russia that it needs guarantees from Brussels that it would not oppose extending one of the legs of the 15.75 billion cubic meter pipeline via Bulgaria. The gas link seeks to circumvent Ukraine.

FOREIGN POLICY DIVIDE

Bulgarian leaders split over Venezuela. While PM Boyko Borissov stated that Bulgaria should join the other EU Member States in their support for Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido and called for new elections in the Latin American country, President Rumen Radev declared that Sofia should withhold its support and not align itself with its EU partners. Mr Radev's arguments echoed those of the Kremlin which has called for non-interference in Venezuela. This is significant, as even the Czech Republic's very pro-Putin President Milosz Zeman backed Mr Guaido.

MISSILE THREAT

NATO Secretary-General warns in Sofia of more Russian missiles facing Europe. Jens Stoltenberg and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov sat down to discuss the future of NATO, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and NATO's role in the Black Sea. Mr Borissov told the media that Bulgaria is one of NATO's most disciplined members and "not a Trojan horse of Russia" but argued against increased NATO involvement along the Bulgarian coastline, saying it could scare away tourists. Stoltenberg stressed that Russia is violating the INF Treaty and unless Moscow starts abiding by it again, Europe might be threatened by more Russian missiles in the future.

RUSSIA AND ENERGY

Russian PM non-committal on energy projects in Bulgaria. During Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Sofia, PM Boyko Borissov came close to pleading for Moscow's OK to the Bulgarian government's plan to build a new natural gas pipeline for the transit of Russian natural gas to Europe. Medvedev emphasized that Russia could promise nothing until it has received concrete guarantees from the European Commission for the construction of an extension of Gazprom's TurkStream pipeline in Bulgaria. Similarly, the proposed construction of the Belene nuclear power plant remains in doubt. Medvedev pointed out that Rosatom would only consider the Bulgarian government's plan once it has its full details, which remain undisclosed. Even though energy projects were the most poignant issue discussed during Medvedev's visit, no agreements in that area were signed, as those fall within Putin's competence. COLLUSION Evidence mounts of connections between Ataka and Russia. Ataka party, a member of the United Patriots coalition, has always been pro-Russian but now there are fresh signals that money might be involved. In February, Italian weekly news magazine L'Espresso published an illuminating piece on Russian funding for the country's far-right Lega Nord party led by deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. One of the names in the circle that served as a connection between Salvini and the Kremlin is Hristo Marinov - a Bulgarian national who is an official advisor to Ataka leader Volen Siderov in parliament. Marinov has registered more than one nebulous business in Russia and always accompanies Siderov on his trips to Moscow. Even though nothing can be fully substantiated, it is reasonable to believe that Marinov can play a role in covert Russian funding of Ataka. DOWN WITH NATURE Bulgaria's government aims at more say on the management of Natura 2000 areas. The Ministry of Environment is reworking the biodiversity law in order to give more powers to act to the minister while isolating non-governmental environmental protection groups. The changes to the law will create wide loopholes that can easily negate much of the pan-European Natura 2000 environmental protection standards in Bulgaria. The WWF and Bulgarian NGO Biodiversity will lose the ability to participate after the changes are enacted. COLLAPSE
United Patriots disintegrating rapidly. The three parties in the alliance which is the junior partner in the government coalition are obviously not very united, as they failed to agree in January on a common platform for the upcoming European Parliament elections. Valeri Simeonov, leader of one of the parties, declared that the alliance was but a few steps away from complete disintegration and hinted that only time would tell whether any form of cooperation would remain among the three nationalist formations. TURNABOUT GERB reverses position on preferential voting. The leading party in the governing coalition initially supported a change to election rules that would have quadrupled the number of preferential votes a candidate needs to receive in order to move higher on the party list. Tzvetan Tzvetanov, the head of GERB's parliamentary group offered a simple explanation - GERB had to do what opposition MRF party had asked for in order to maintain the stability of the government. Only three days later, after the change proved scandalous, PM Boyko Borissov made a complete about-turn, again citing the said stability. The two statements cancel each other out, demonstrating GERB's utter reliance on fluid MRF support for pushing legislation through and staying in power. SENSORS

South Korea's Samsung C&T Corporation completed the sale of its 43 MW photovoltaic portfolio in Bulgaria for an undisclosed price. The seven solar parks were acquired by a 60-40 joint venture of Germany's KGAL and Czechia-based Portanero Invest. The plants constituted 4.12% of all installed PV capacity in Bulgaria and produced 4.18% of the PV electricity generated in 2017. Micronix Group, the end owner of Portanero Invest, controls two other solar parks and one biogas plant near the city of Vidin, in northwestern Bulgaria.

The status quo forces of Bulgarian politics geared up for an election year by introducing controversial last-minute changes to the Electoral Code. Their primary goal is to render preferential voting redundant. The proposal, introduced by the nominally oppositional Movement of Rights and Freedoms, was backed by the ruling GERB party but caused an uproar within the governing coalition, as well as the loud protest of parliamentarian and out-of-parliament opposition, including President Rumen Radev. The Bulgarian Socialist Party currently boycotts the National assembly on the matter, while the future of preferential voting remains hanging on the balance.

After a series of investigations, including by Capital weekly in Bulgaria and by the international investigative network Bellingcat, it was revealed that Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev might have been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok family back in 2015. The case eerily resembles the attempt to murder ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in the spring of 2018. It was only after the media revelations hit international media and the British secret services entered the investigation that the Bulgarian authorities which usually keep a low profile when it comes to Russia-related matters, took it seriously.

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