Bulgaria seeks to benefit from Russia-Turkey spat

Sofia (AFP) - In a fine balancing act, Bulgaria seeks to benefit from a spat between Turkey and Russia to revive weakened economic ties with Moscow -- its main gas supplier -- without offending Ankara, an important ally in the migrant crisis.

In a sign of thawing relations, Sofia last week hosted a meeting of the Bulgarian-Russian economic cooperation committee -- the first since the 2014 failure of the South Stream pipeline project.

The multi-billion-dollar plan had aimed to deliver Russian gas to Europe via the Black Sea and the Balkans while bypassing conflict-ridden Ukraine.

But EU and NATO member Bulgaria, under pressure from both Brussels and Washington, ended up suspending the deal.

Reacting to the snub, Russia redrew plans to transport its gas via a new undersea pipeline called TurkStream. But these too were shelved after the downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish fighter jet on the Syrian border in November.

Bulgaria -- the only bloc member to get almost all of its natural gas from Russia via Ukraine -- has now seized upon the row to propose yet another deal: building a depot that could channel Russia's gas to Europe via Bulgaria.

"We presented Moscow our project for building a new gas distribution centre that we are also coordinating with the European Commission," Bulgarian Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova said last Thursday at the end of the bilateral talks.

Russia cautiously welcomed the proposal.

"What keeps us from being too optimistic at this stage is the fact that we are still awaiting the sorting-out of a series of technical questions with the European Commission," Deputy Justice Minister Sergei Gerasimov said after last week's bilateral meeting.

- 'Incredible pressure' -

In the short term, a rapprochement with Moscow could also help fuel Bulgaria's fledgling tourism industry.

Last summer, its Black Sea resorts were hit by a steep drop in Russian visitor numbers as the ruble slid along with oil prices.

Gerasimov last week touched on the possibility of "diverting Russian tourists from Turkey" to Bulgaria.

Sofia, meanwhile, promised to ease its visa regime for Russians.

But Bulgaria is walking on thin ice as it seeks to also maintain good relations with Turkey.

Sofia notably counts on its southeastern neighbour to prevent an influx of migrants through their shared 275-kilometre (170-mile) porous land border.

"Regarding the downing of the Russian plane by Turkey (...) we showed that we are a loyal member of the EU and NATO," Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said in early January.

However, he also admitted to being subjected to "incredible pressure" by both sides.

"Now that the two titans have clashed, they want us to say whether we are pro-Russian or pro-Turkish. We are neither pro-Russian nor pro-Turkish. We want to be loyal neighbours," he said.

- Putin 'loves us' -

During its 45 years of communist rule, Sofia was Moscow's staunchest ally and surveys indicate that many Bulgarians continue to feel strongly pro-Russian.

A poll conducted last March showed that 61 percent of participants maintained a positive attitude towards Russia, even at the height of the Crimean annexation crisis.

Experts point out that this "Russophile stereotype" was cultivated long before communism, finding its roots in Russia's liberation of Bulgaria from five centuries of Ottoman domination in 1878.

Moscow, meanwhile, has also been sending friendly signals in Bulgaria's direction.

Russian President Vladimir Putin included in his 2016 calendar a picture with his Bulgarian shepherd dog Buffy, received as a present from Borisov.

"Well, he loves us," said Borisov, grinning, as he commented recently on the photo.