Italy and Bulgaria – the great tests for the energy unity of Europe against Russia

Italy and Bulgaria – the great tests for the energy unity of Europe against Russia
Italy and Bulgaria – the great tests for the energy unity of Europe against Russia

As Europe braces for winter energy shortages, elections in Italy and Bulgaria may test resolve on Russia sanctions

Europe faces two choices this winter. The first is to accept curbs on gas consumption that are likely to cause major, lasting damage to heavy industry and cost hundreds of billions of euros to manage rising energy prices and accelerate the energy transition. The second option is to accept the destruction of the Ukrainian state by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his plan for aggressive wars in the future, writes Al Jazeera.

The second option is, of course, completely unacceptable. But Europe’s ability to remain united in its rejection faces two upcoming tests – elections in Italy on September 25 and in Bulgaria a week later. In both countries, political forces more pro-Putin than the rest of Europe could rise to power, potentially threatening a united front on the issue of sanctions against Russia.

Let’s be clear – the energy problems in Europe are the result of the economic war that the Putin regime is waging at the same time as its attack on Ukraine.

Moscow no longer even bothers to hide this fact. While the Kremlin has historically rejected accusations that it is using energy as a political weapon — a laughable claim to any neutral observer — Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on September 5 that gas flows would not be resumed on Nord Stream 1, connecting Russia and Germany while the sanctions are in place. It is the largest single source of pipeline gas from Russia to Europe.

Russia initially claimed the pipeline was shut down in late August for repairs. With the pretense falling, Putin recently threatened that Moscow would cut off energy supplies if the G7 went ahead with plans to impose a price cap on Russian hydrocarbon exports.

Europe needs to recognize that there are reasons for the Kremlin to use its gas weapons even more openly than before – the country is losing both on the sanctions front and in the war in Ukraine.

According to an internal government document seen by Bloomberg, Russian experts and executives predict far deeper damage to the economy than the Putin government’s public admissions. Because of the skyrocketing hydrocarbon prices, Russia’s GDP will probably not shrink as much as expected, but its telecommunications sector, pharmaceutical industry, engineering, civil aviation and even agriculture have been devastated.

This also applies to the army – the grueling progress Putin’s troops are making in the Donbass is coming at a high cost. It was supposed to be a lightning operation to topple the Ukrainian government, install a puppet regime and seize large swathes of devastated territory. The recent progress of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson and near Kharkiv shatters the little remaining myth of Russia’s military might. At the same time, there is talk that Moscow should take drones from Iran and ammunition from North Korea.

Russia’s supposed ally China is unwilling to risk violating sanctions in order to supply it with weapons or offer it access to credit. It is said that Beijing will not even allow Russia to freely exchange the Chinese currency it has bought.

Against the background of this disadvantageous strategic position, the Kremlin tries to use energy as a weapon to the greatest extent. The Kremlin believes it can get Europe to freeze to ease sanctions. The threat of a cold winter has already helped Moscow secure the support of Hungary, which has expanded its purchases of Russian gas and pressured the EU to lift sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

The big question: Will Italy and Bulgaria be the next countries to tick off? In Italy, a coalition of right-wing parties is the favorite to win a majority in the upcoming elections. It includes the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who remains a political force and is known as a friend of Putin. Although he was no longer in power in 2015, his visit to Russian-occupied Crimea is the only time a former leader of a G7 country has visited the region since Putin annexed it.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the current largest party in the Italian parliament, the Northern League, is also part of this coalition. He also praised Putin in the past, and in 2017 he signed a cooperation agreement between the League and the Russian president’s ruling United Russia party. In 2019, a series of tapes revealed how a close adviser to Salvini discussed securing Russian money for his party. He openly called for a “rethinking” of the sanctions imposed on Russia during the election campaign.

But Giorgia Meloni, who leads the resurgent Brothers of Italy party – currently leading the polls – supports the sanctions regime and has said she will stick to EU and NATO sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Recent polls have found Meloni to win more than half of the right-wing vote and possibly twice as many votes as Salvini’s League. A coalition government led by Meloni will certainly have other disputes with Brussels, but she seems to realize that she can use support for Ukraine and sanctions to buy room for concessions on other issues.

What can we say about Bulgaria? Prime Minister Kiril Petko’s reformist government was among the first in the EU to reject Russian gas after the invasion. Petkov’s coalition collapsed due to infighting in June.

The caretaker government appointed by President Rumen Radev, a longtime supporter of closer ties with Moscow, wants to hold talks with Gazprom to resume gas supplies from Russia.

Poll results have barely changed since Bulgarians last voted in November 2021, the third parliamentary election of the same year. But Petkov’s party has been losing support lately.

At the same time, Radev’s ally Stefan Yanev, who favors a softer stance towards Russia, has created a new political party that could cross the threshold to enter parliament.

As Europe chooses its political future, maintaining a united front on Russian sanctions is essential to winning the ongoing economic war. Bulgarian and Italian voters will soon have their say, and all of Europe must watch.

The article is in bulgaria

Tags: Italy Bulgaria great tests energy unity Europe Russia

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