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'Power Wars' Between Romania And Bulgaria

Romania and Bulgaria, both candidates for early European Union accession talks, have traded insults in the past week over what their media have called the "power war".
By Marian Chiriac

Relations between Romania and Bulgaria have deteriorated in the past week in the wake of an ultimatum from the European Commission to Bulgaria to specify a schedule for the early closure of the four reactors at its Kozluduy nuclear power plant as a pre-condition for European Union accession talks.


Ministers and media on both sides have chosen to trade insults, rather than to work together to find solutions. While Bulgaria views the early closure of the Kozluduy plant as a blow to its economy, Romania is perceived as over eager to exploit the economic opportunities which it believes will ensue.


Romanian Transport Minister Traian Basescu triggered the war of words by saying that a Romanian project for a joint hydropower station on the Danube would generate enough power to offset the closure of the obsolete Bulgarian reactors, which he described as "a threat to the whole region". Moreover, he pointed out that the plant would also support a motorway and railway.


Bulgarian officials were especially irritated by the latter with Prime Minister Ivan Kostov saying that Romania is again obstructing the proposed construction of a new bridge across the Danube to join the two countries.


The dispute over a new bridge to span the Danube, which dates back to the early 1990s and requires EU funding, centres on the location of the project. Bulgaria wants an upstream location and Romania prefers somewhere more downstream, each country hoping thus to boost road transit through its own territory.


According to a 1997 memorandum, which was signed under EU pressure, the two countries agreed to build the bridge in the best commercially viable position, but the compromise location has yet to be decided.


In response to Bulgarian criticism, Minister Basescu, dismissed Kostov's statement as "usual Bulgarian propaganda" and said that Sofia had some nerve censuring Bucharest after blocking for years Romania's plans to export electricity elsewhere in the Balkans.


The Bulgarian media responded by accusing Basescu of waging a smear campaign against their country and denounced the proposal as a conspiracy by Western companies attempting to enter the regional electrity market. "France and Canadian companies that have put money into Romania's sole nuclear plant at Cernavoda would like Romania to replace Bulgaria as a Balkan energy supplier", said the Sofia daily 24 Casa (24 Hours).


"Basescu unreasonably advised swapping a $110 million bridge for a $2 billion power plant", reported another Bulgarian newspaper, which also pointed out that Romania has to improve its record on child protection and market reform - both EU criteria for accession talks - before intervening in Bulgarian affairs.


Bulgaria gets more than 40 per cent of its energy from the Kozloduy power plant, which has a total of six reactors and is located on Bulgaria's northern border with Romania. Kozloduy's output is vital both to Bulgarian consumers and to Bulgarian exports, since Sofia supplies power to its neighbours Greece and Turkey. However, Western experts say that the plant, which is a similar construction to Chernobyl, is unsafe.


Faced with over capacity in electricity generation and shrinking energy demand at home, Romania has pinned its hopes on the Kozloduy shutdown to help it become the leading regional electricity exporter. To date, however, Bulgaria had systematically kept Romania out of the reginal market by setting high transit charges.


Although both Romania and Bulgaria ostensibly agreed on September 10 to link all national energy grids and thus create a regional electricity market in the Balkans, the 'power war', as the media have called the latest conflict between the two countries, rumbles on and reflects a long history of economic competition.


It is a history which both countries would do well to shelve in advance of the European Union's Helsinki summit this December where accession talks will be a key item on the agenda.


Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.


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