Russian pipeline key issue as Bulgaria holds vote

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarians voted in a parliamentary election Sunday, hoping that a new government will end the country's political stalemate, revive its flagging economy, solve a severe banking crisis and find ways to ease Moscow's grip on its energy supplies.

Opinion surveys have predicted the biggest vote winner will be the center-right GERB party led by a former prime minister, Boyko Borisov, but say it is expected to fall short of a majority. The 55-year-old could face an uphill battle in building a coalition government, which would fuel instability.

Bulgaria belongs to NATO and the 28-nation European Union, but many Bulgarians feel a strong kinship to Russia, and the country's extensive dependence on Russian oil and gas leaves it vulnerable to political meddling by the Kremlin.

The nation of 7.3 million — the poorest in the EU — is struggling with corruption add a widespread disillusionment with the governing elite. A weak economic recovery is now also threatened by a Russian ban on European food imports and a major crisis in the country's fourth largest bank.

For anti-monopoly reasons, the EU has pressured Bulgaria to withdraw from the South Stream pipeline project and the work has stalled. South Steam aims to transport gas from Russia through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to several other European countries. Moscow's hope was to bypass Ukraine's pipelines.

Borisov says he would only continue building the South Stream pipeline if the EU approved — in sharp contrast with the Socialists, who want the project at any price. Many Bulgarians back the pipeline, eager for the jobs they hope it will bring.