In January 2017 ex-Air Force commander and fighter jet pilot Rumen Radev became the fifth president of Bulgaria. Mr Radev, a previously little known and apolitical member of the military, won ⅔ of the vote against GERB's nomination Tsetska Tsacheva on a moderately pro-Russian, security-focused agenda. In his new position, he appointed a caretaker government from scratch in his fi rst days in offi ce, moderated his position towards Russia (although he still invited president Vladimir Putin to visit Bulgaria) and reassured Bulgaria's Euro-Atlantic allies about his pro-EU, pro-NATO convictions by visiting Brussels.
Since early May Bulgaria has a new-old government. After Boyko Borissov's GERB party won convincingly the early general election it called after its candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, lost the 2016 presidential elections, the party formed a new coalition government with the support of the United Patriots nationalist alliance. The UP quickly became a hot potato in GERB's hands, after the European People's Party dismissed their Bulgarian sister party's choice of a coalition partner.
President Rumen Radev decided to fi nally publish one of the transcripts made during an emergency meeting at the president's office in 2014 on the crisis that unfolded in Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB). Although the transcript made no headlines as to why the Bulgarian banking system was on the verge of collapse three years ago, it showcased the chaotic way the country is governed - people participating in the conversation at ex-president Rossen Plevneliev's offi ce, including then ex-PM Boyko Borissov and PM Plamen Oresharski, cared more about the political consequences of a possible bank run rather than on how best to draft a contingency strategy.
The magistrates' quota in the Supreme Judicial Council, the governing body of the judicial system in Bulgaria, was not filled with the nominations "recommended" by the power brokers in the system. In the weeks preceding the vote the chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court, Georgi Kolev, tried to press administrative judges into nominating a single candidate but to no avail - in a direct democratic vote more than 2000 of Bulgaria's 2238 judges selected reform-minded, outspoken colleagues.
The Bulgarian economy had been growing steadily by more than 3% in the previous eight quarters but slowed down in the last one. This is due in part to the shrinking share of the gray economy, which now has to declare its revenues, according to the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association, and in part to record-high exports, particularly to non-EU countries (16.1 billion euro in January-April 2017, which is a 13% rise compared to the same period in 2016). The upper limit of growth may come as a result of a saturated labor force market, as the country is practically reaching full employment and salaries are rising faster than productivity (10.1% to 2.6% in the fifi rst quarter of 2017).
The National Statistical Institute (NSI) increased its prognosis for Bulgaria's GDP growth by 0.1% to 3.5% in 2017, citing the expected higher consumption among Bulgarians as the leading cause of optimism. The European Commission is more skeptical than the NSI and says that the slower absorption of EU funds and slowing exports would limit GDP growth to 2.9% in 2017.
Bulgaria's competition regulator found no signs of a cartel agreement in the fuel retail sector and then decided there was no proof of abuse of dominant position by the sole Bulgarian oil refi nery Lukoil Neftohim Burgas and leading fuel retailer Lukoil Bulgaria. A year ago, before the fall of the second Borissov government, the regulator was of the opposite opinion.
In June, Bulgaria restarted talks with Russian energy giant Gazprom over a pipeline that would substitute for the abandoned South Stream project. This happened after Russia and Turkey started the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline that aims to go around Ukraine.
The new Bulgarian government has offi cially launched a bid to join the ERM-II, the mechanism, known as the Eurozone's "waiting room. After Mr Gerdzhikov's caretaker government put it on the agenda, PM Boyko Borissov set the goal in stone during his visits to Germany and France, his fi rst visits abroad after forming his third government. Even though Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel praised Bulgaria's ambition, the German chancellor said Bulgaria needs to do more to strengthen its rule of law before joining the Eurozone.
FAST CHARGE / Bulgaria's first 50 kWh fast charging station opens. Sofia-based eMobility International chose the city of Blagoevgrad for the star of its expansion into higher rated charging stations. The second will soon open in Sofia. eMobility, which operates under the Eldrive brand in Southeastern Europe has a network of charging stations and offers short- and long-term rental services with its fl eet of electric vehicles. In December, the company announced it plans to invest €3 mn into the construction of about 500 charging points for electric cars in Bulgaria and neighboring countries by the end of 2017.
PASTRY EXPANSION / Bulgarian confectionery chain Nedelya expands in Romania, to enter Austria, Hungary. Nedelya plans to add 16 pastry shops in neighboring Romania to its existing 5 there during the next 12 months. The company also intends to enter the markets of Austria and Hungary as part of its expansion plans. Nedelya sells 10% of its cakes in Romania, where it employs 40 people. The company's fi rst pastry shop in Romania opened doors in Bucharest's Baneasa Shopping City in 2015. The chain, established in 1993 as a family business, currently has over 30 pastry shops located in eight Bulgarian cities and employs more than 300 people in Bulgaria.
DRUGS SANS FRONTIERES / Bulgaria's Sopharma acquires majority stake in Moldova's RAP Pharma Intl. The Bulgarian pharmaceutical company acquired 51% of Moldova's drug distributor for an undisclosed price. The Moldovan company owns 10 pharmacies and generated a turnover of more than 3 million euro in 2016. This is the latest in a series of recent acquisitions by Sopharma. In March, the company launched a buyout bid for the remaining 22.37% stake in itsBulgarian peer Unipharm which it does not already own. In February, Sopharma fi led for regulatory approval to acquire Bulgaria's Doverie United Holding, in which it already owns over 25% interest. In November, Sopharma acquired
68% of Bulgarian drug producer Veta Pharma.
GPS UNITED / Italy's Viasat acquires Bulgaria's GPS-based telematics devices maker EuroGPS. Viasat Group plans to transform its new Bulgarian subsidiary into a hub for the development of new technologies for fl eet managementand intelligent transport systems for smart cities. The Italian company also plans to develop a production center for hardware solutions. EuroGPS holds over 50% market share in the telematics devices market in Bulgaria and develops
customized software and hardware solutions. Viasat Group's portfolio includes services in the sectors of telematics, telecommunications, insurance and the Internet of Things.
THIRSTY INVESTORS / Czech KMV buys Bulgarian bottling company Quadrant Beverages. Quadrant Beverages is the offi cial bottling company of PepsiCo products in Bulgaria, including Pepsi, Mirinda, 7up, Lipton and other brands. Karlovarské minerální vody (KMV) is the biggest producer of mineral and spring water in the Czech Republic. The company currently bottles mineral and spring water of the Mattoni, Magnesia and Aquila brands and exports them to more than 20 countries worldwide. This is the second acquisition in the sector in Bulgaria after Belgium's Spadel bought Devin bottling company.
SOUTH AFRICANS COMING / PKM Investments buys two shopping centers in Bulgaria. Luxembourgregistered PKM Investments, a joint venture of commercial property investor MAS Real Estate and Romania's Prime Kapital, acquired two shopping malls, in Burgas and Stara Zagora, for a total of €62 mn. Galleria Burgas mall benefi ts from a total catchment area of approximately 480,000 people within 60 minutes' drive, as well as a signifi cant number of tourists during the summer holiday season. Galleria Stara Zagora has a total catchment area of approximately 400,000 people within 45 minutes' drive. Bucharest-based Prime Kapital is a vertically-integrated real estate developer, investor and operator. MAS Real Estate, registered in the British Virgin Islands, is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange.
INTO THE CLОUDS / BTC, Huawei to develop Southeast European regional cloud technology hub. Neither Bulgarian telecommunications group BTC, operating under the Vivacom brand, nor China's telecommunications equipment and services company Huawei have revealed any further details. According to Guo Ping, CEO of Huawei, all ICT solutions for enterprises will become cloud-based by 2025 and more than 85% of corporate applications will be placed directly in the cloud.
GOOD SHOTS / Bulgarian hunting rifles maker Gabinvest builds new factory. The €4.1 mn facility in Gabrovo will increase the company's production capacity by 30%. The factory will allow it to manufacture and assemble end-products. Gabinvest is an affi liate of German company L&O Hunting Group.
ABOVE THE CLOUDS / Bulsatcom's first satellite close (TO SEE 15 of JUNE) to launch. BulgariaSat-1 - the country's first telecommunications satellite has successfully completed all major assembly and test procedures at Space Systems/Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, California. The satellite will provide television and communication services covering
the Balkans and other European regions. Bulsatcom is a leading telecommunications company and the largest pay-TV services provider in Bulgaria.
ELECTRONICS EXPANSION / IMI grows its Bulgarian business. Integrated Micro-Electronics (IMI) Bulgaria, a subsidiary of Philippines-based provider of electronics manufacturing services, has invested €3.9 mn euro in expanding the capacity of its production plant in Botevgrad. The investment includes launching three new assembly lines for electric modules. The company expects to increase its production capacity by 25-30%.
FURNITURE HUB / JYSK building €100 mn logistics center in Bulgaria. Danish bedding and furniture retailer will complete the construction of its new facility in Bulgaria by the autumn of 2018. It will be the backbone of JUSK's operations in the markets of Southeast Europe. The company, which operates on the Bulgarian market since 2005 has 15 stores in Bulgaria.
FINAL DEAL / The acquisition of UBB by Belgium's KBC Group finalized. After receiving all the regulatory approvals, the acquisition of the fourth largest lender in Bulgaria - United Bulgarian Bank, by Belgium's KBC Group was completed in June. The negotiated price of €610 mln euro was paid and the merging procedures enacted. They are projected to close at the beginning of 2018. KBC, which already owns Bulgaria's Cibank, is said to be planning to
combine the assets of UBB and Cibank to create the third biggest bank in the country. No new name of the consolidated bank has been announced yet.
MONEY FOR THE BUSINESS / Bank lending to businesses and households continues to grow. Bulgarian National
Bank data shows that credit not only increased for a fifth month in a row in April, but its volumes are also booming. In April, bank lending grew 3.36% year to year, following a rise of 2.54% in March and an increase of 1.85% in February. The steady growth demonstrates a sustainable trend not seen since the collapse of Corporate Commercial Bank in the summer of 2014.
STOCK EXCHANGE INTEGRATION / Foreign-listed companies can be now traded on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange. Its new trading segment - BSE International, will initially allow investors to buy shares of companies listed onthe Deutsche Boerse but potentially other stock exchanges might be added. Bulgarian companies and individual investors
can trade on foreign stock exchanges at present, but the new domestic platform will signifi cantly reduce their costs.
NOT IN LONDON / EXPAT Bulgaria ETF is prevented from listing on the London Stock Exchange. Sofia-based Expat Asset Management tryed to list its Expat Bulgaria SOFIX UCITS Exchange Traded Fund in London in order to gain access to investors who shy away from the domestic market. It turned out that Euroclear and SIX SIS, the two clearing houses which service trading on the LSE are not connected to the Bulgarian Central Depository and have no interest to do so. Expat can register its ETF in Ireland or other country with access to the LSE, but this will complicate trading
and make it more expensive. The company now targets the Frankfurt Stock Exchange for the international debut of its ETF.
GAS POSSIBILITIES / Romania might be forced to open its gas market for exports, following the start of a formal investigation by the European Commission to assess whether Romania's majority stateowned gas transmission system operator Transgaz has abused its dominant market position to restrict gas exports. Romania was following a policy of restricting gas exports in order to keep its domestic prices lower. If the Romanian companies are allowed to export to neighboring markets, Bulgaria could receive an alternative to Gazprom as a source of gas supplies.
PIPELINES OF INDEPENDENCE / The construction of the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector (GBI) is getting traction. After years of delays, the 170-km gas pipeline will probably secure financing by the end of the year. It will mostly come from public sources, because a normal project financing will make shipment fees uncompetitive. GBI will provide Bulgaria with gas from Azerbaijan and open the possibilities for uninterrupted shipments to Bulgaria of gas from sources other than Gazprom.
NUCLEAR FOREVER / Bulgaria is exploring a new nuclear power plant project. During her visit to Moscow, Bulgarian Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova probed the Russian authorities and nuclear companies about possible
participation in a restart of the Belene nuclear power plant project. Last year Bulgaria paid 600 mn. euro to Rosatom, the builder of NPP Belene for the manufactured yet unpaid equipment for the project that was terminated in 2012. With almost 2 bn euro in sunken cost, Sofia is trying as much as possible to recover its expenses. Earlier ideas to sell the equipment to Iran failed. Now, the government is trying to set up a new company comprising the assets of NPP Belene and sell it. No potential candidate has appeared so far. Rosatom encouraged Mrs. Petkova to restart the project, but declared that they can participate only as a supplier, not as an equity investor. The government's plan of last resort is to use the equipment to build new units in the existing NPP Kolzoduy.
HOPE FOR THE SUN / The energy regulator increased the feed-intariffs for rooftop photovoltaic installations. Reversing its policy of suppressing the development of new renewable energy sources, the Energy and Water Regulatory Commission raised the preferential prices for the purchase of electricity from small rooftop photovoltaics by 6% for 5kW installations and by 8% for 30 kW installations.
DRILLS OF HOPE / Total E&P will drill a second well in its offshore exploration block Khan Asparuh. In October, Total said it has discovered oil in the 1-21 Khan Asparuh block in the Black Sea, but didn't disclose more information, for example whether this is a commercially recoverable discovery. Now, with the extension of the exploration permit by the government and the announcement of a second drill, it can be projected that there are great chances of a commercial discovery. The 1-21 Khan Asparuh block is located deep offshore in the Bulgarian sector of the western part of the
Black Sea and covers an area of 14,220 sq km with water depths up to 2,200 m.
GAS FOUNTAIN / The extraction of gas from Galata field quadrupled following the change in ownership. Petroceltic-Bulgaria, which exploits the offshore field in the Black Sea, was acquired by its main creditor Worldview. This is probably a one-off event, because the field is considered exhausted and the plans were to turn it into a gas storage. The new owner of Petroceltic, however, hopes to start exploitation of a new field, Kavarna-East.
CEZ-XIT / CEZ is in advanced stage to select a buyer of its assets in Bulgaria. The Czech company selected four Bulgarian candidates to submit final bids and bank guarantees. Half of them are entirely local and will hardly find
funding to the tune of 300 mn euro. Probably the only serious contenders to take over CEZ`s business in Bulgaria in supply, distribution and trade with electricity are the consortium between Bobokov brothers (Prista Oil) with Turkish STFA Yatirim and the Czech Energo-pro. An interesting name that appeared among the selected is Intercom, a small company with business in renewable energy which is most probably a screen hiding other players.