Teodor Detchev: Azerbaijan has become a primary supplier of natural gas and one of the pillars of energy security in Bulgaria

Teodor Detchev: Azerbaijan has become a primary supplier of natural gas and one of the pillars of energy security in Bulgaria

Kamil Makhmudov

Teodor Detchev: “Of particular importance is the fact that, despite the numerous obstacles and difficulties that accompanied the flow of Azerbaijani natural gas to Bulgaria through the pipeline, the state leadership in Baku strictly adhered to the initially agreed upon terms. Thus, Azerbaijan has become a first-class supplier of natural gas through the pipeline in Bulgaria and one of the pillars of the energy security of our state”.

Photo: Stanimir Luchkov

Interview with Teodor Detchev Ph.D., associate professor at the Higher School of Security and Economics (HSSE) in the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, head of the Laboratory on the Problems of the Black Sea and Caspian Region

How do you assess the level of Azerbaijani-Bulgarian relations?

Currently, the state of relations between Azerbaijan and Bulgaria is excellent. In fact, they have always been very good, even before the Republic of Azerbaijan began to play such an increased role in the energy security of Bulgaria and the region. Relations between the two countries have always been friendly, starting with the declaration of independence of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union and until now.

I believe that President Ilham Aliyev has a very positive personal attitude towards Bulgaria and Bulgarians. Some time ago, the First Lady and First Vice-President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, presented a gift of exceptional emotional value to Bulgaria. On her initiative, Azerbaijan, represented by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, donated to Bulgaria a museum on Trapezitsa Hill in the ancient medieval capital of Bulgaria - the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

In order for Azerbaijani readers to understand the significance of the city of Veliko Tarnovo for the Bulgarians, it is perhaps most correct to make a comparison with the city of Shusha. Thus, just as today Shusha is the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, Veliko Tarnovo is the historical capital of Bulgaria.

The city was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Tzardom for several centuries - from its creation to falling under the rule of the Sultan and the Ottoman Empire. In the Middle Ages Veliko Tarnovo was located exclusively on two high and heavily fortified hills - Tsarevets and Trapezitsa. Tsarevets was the home of the Bulgarian Tzar and the Patriarch, and Trapezitsa was the home of the bolyars - the feudal aristocracy of medieval Bulgaria.

Over the years, the efforts of Bulgarian science have focused primarily on Tsarevets, but Trapezitsa has remained a little outside the interest of scientists and the country as a whole. Therefore, the construction of the museum on Trapezitsa Hill was an extremely positive gesture of attention and goodwill, which was highly appreciated, especially in the city of Veliko Tarnovo.

Today, of course, our relations have an extremely strong and solid foundation. Azerbaijan is a very important factor in ensuring the energy security of Bulgaria, and Bulgaria is essential for reinforcing the energy expansion of Baku in South-Eastern Europe, and already towards Central Europe.

If there is any hostility towards Azerbaijan in some circles, it is associated with the loss of Gazprom’s position in Bulgaria and Russia’s inability to blackmail our country with energy resources. This is the position of extreme supporters of Putin and Moscow in Bulgaria. On the contrary, Bulgarians, oriented towards the European Union and NATO, who, thank God, constitute a significant majority in our country, are supporters of Azerbaijani energy projects and have extreme sympathy for the Azerbaijanis and their remarkable hard work.

What do you think are the prospects for further development of relations between our countries?

The prospects for our relations can only be positive. Bulgaria will be Azerbaijan’s partner in the “Vertical Corridor” and “Ring of Solidarity” projects. This will create opportunities for the supply of Azerbaijani gas via pipeline to Romania, Hungary and Slovakia in large volumes.

The next step will almost certainly be the flow of Azerbaijani gas to Austria. You see, even those two EU member states that are most tolerant to the regime in Moscow, are rushing to diversify their natural gas supplies, and the solution for them is natural gas from the Caspian Sea shelf.

By the way, another friend of Moscow, Serbia, is already receiving Azerbaijani gas directly from Bulgaria via the “Sofia-Nis” interconnector, built as a project of common interest of the European Union.

It is worth noting one more fact: Moldova already receives Azerbaijani natural gas thanks to the assistance of Bulgaria through the Bulgarian gas transportation network.

I think that both emotionally and pragmatically, relations between Bulgaria and Azerbaijan will only gain momentum, especially since Baku’s entry into the European energy market with new products will further strengthen the pragmatic vector of these relations.

Azerbaijan's agreement with Romania and Hungary to supply green electricity produced by offshore wind farms in the Caspian Sea is a remarkable success for Azerbaijan's foreign policy and the country's energy program. Bulgaria, although with some delay, also joined this agreement, and this is an additional guarantee of a good future for our relations. Moreover, Serbia has also already set its sights on the supply of Azerbaijani “green” electricity via a high-voltage cable across the Black Sea.

How do you assess Azerbaijan's contribution to building Bulgaria's energy security architecture?

Human memory tends to forget bad things, so we will have to start by remembering a very unpleasant episode of recent modern history. After the escalation of the war in Ukraine and the launch of a full-scale attack on its neighbor, Russia began to play the card of energy blackmail against the countries of the European Union. They should have been punished for disapproving of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

It is indicative that Russia unilaterally stopped supplies of natural gas to Bulgaria and Poland, without even coming up with a plausible excuse. We know about Russia's historical enmity with Poland, but Russian propaganda has always convinced us that Russians and Bulgarians are brothers. Among the Bulgarians there is an ethnographic group - the so-called “Shopi”, living mainly around Sofia, who have a witty, but also somewhat blasphemous saying: “If it was right to have a brother, then God would have a brother”.

Well, in the summer of 2022, we understood the deep meaning of this saying. The main severity of energetic blackmail fell on us. The completion and commissioning of the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector, through which Bulgaria is currently supplied exclusively with Azerbaijani natural gas, failed the “energy apocalypse” planned in Moscow, which was supposed to befall Bulgaria.

Of particular importance is the fact that, despite the numerous obstacles and difficulties that accompanied the flow of Azerbaijani natural gas to Bulgaria through the pipeline, the state leadership in Baku strictly adhered to the initially agreed upon terms. Thus, Azerbaijan has become a first-class supplier of natural gas through the pipeline in Bulgaria and one of the pillars of the energy security of our state.

What percentage of demand is covered by Azerbaijani gas supplies?

The initial agreement on the pipeline supply of Azerbaijani natural gas was foreseen at 1 billion cubic meters per year. In fact, this is a third of the average annual consumption in Bulgaria. In fact, at the end of 2023, it was established that over the last full calendar year, Bulgaria bought more than 1 billion 200 million cubic meters of natural gas from SOCAR. This means that Caspian gas already covers more than a third of Bulgaria's needs.

It should be emphasized here that Azerbaijan’s strategy to enter European gas markets is very rational for several reasons. On the one hand, Azerbaijan is focused on the largest energy market in the world, including the largest natural gas market.

Moreover, for purely geographical reasons, it is easier for Azerbaijan to supply natural gas via pipeline to Europe than to China or India. Having certain volumes of natural gas, Azerbaijan attracted large global companies to the construction of the Southern Gas Corridor, in particular the Trans-Anatolian (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline (TAP). By attracting reliable business partners, Azerbaijan was able to implement an infrastructure project, which at first experts were very skeptical about, especially against the backdrop of the abandonment of NABUCCO.

However, after the gas transportation infrastructure has been created, business can expand - either through additional volumes of Azerbaijani gas from the Caspian shelf, or through Turkmen gas if the Trans-Caspian pipeline becomesa fact in the futire. Regarding the latter, we know that it is Russia and Iran that are in strong opposition to the Turkmenistan – Azerbaijani interconnection for obvious reasons. A separate matter is that transporting hydrogen via the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline will make this pipeline even more valuable for the European market.

On the other hand, Azerbaijani gas reaches Europe through South-Eastern Europe, where a relatively large area is a relatively smaller consumer of natural gas. Bulgaria, for example, is not a large consumer with just over 3 billion cubic meters per year. Other countries in the Western Balkans are even smaller consumers, but the arrival of Azerbaijani gas in these territories promises other business opportunities. For example, it was agreed that SOCAR will carry out gasification in Albania, where it does not exist at all.

If consumption in Bulgaria increases, there is no doubt that the main direction in which a solution will be sought will be to increase imports from Azerbaijan, despite the fact that Bulgaria is also a shareholder in the liquefied gas terminal in Alexandroupolis.

If Azerbaijan manages to attract an additional flow of natural gas from Turkmenistan - through the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline or through swap contracts with Turkmenistan and Iran, then the throughput capacity of the existing infrastructure will have to be increased. In fact, such a question already exists following the agreement signed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

In what sphere of economy is this gas used most of all?

I mentioned above that Bulgaria is a relatively smaller consumer of natural gas with its 3 billion cubic meters per year, but this number also has a downside. In Bulgaria, natural gas is many times more an industrial raw material than a fuel, compared to a number of other countries.

Natural gas is the main fuel for district heating companies, but in Bulgaria no more than 18 percent of the population uses so-called “district heating”. In Bulgaria, the share of electricity produced by thermal power plants running on natural gas is, at least for now, extremely low.

One of the large consumers of natural gas are chemical industry enterprises - fertilizer producers, for example “Neochim” - Dimitrovgrad. This in itself is good news for Azerbaijani exporters, since this is consumption that will remain after the period during which natural gas plays the role of a transition fuel.

By the way, if, based on the fact that the EU considers natural gas to be a transition fuel, which will be relevant at least until 2030, some coal-fired thermal power plants in Bulgaria switch to natural gas, this could easily lead to a doubling of Bulgaria’s need for Azerbaijani gas.

It should be noted that, in addition to the cleanest possible production of hydrogen – “green” hydrogen through the electrolytic dissociation of water, there are other methods for its production, for which natural gas also plays the role of raw material. Currently, natural gas and other fossil fuels are used for the production of a significant amounts of hydrogen. If greater advances are made in carbon capture and storage technologies, interest in producing hydrogen from natural gas will continue and even increase. Thus, opposition by “green” arguments against the construction of gas transportation infrastructure is not entirely justified from principle and logical point of view.

A summary of the interview in Azerbaijani, English and Russian is available in the Azerbaijani web site report.az:

In Azerbaijani: https://report.az

In English: https://report.az/en

In Russian: https://report.az/ru