"The Romanian party confirmed the interest in participating in the South Stream project and provided the Russian party with the data requested earlier and required to prepare a feasibility study for a possible pipeline route across Romania," a Gazprom press release announced.
Few details have emerged and it remains unclear if the pipeline would now simply feature an extension from Bulgaria to Romania, or if plans to move the pipe north exclude Bulgaria. In recent weeks, Romania has been under strong pressure from Gazprom to join the pipeline project, as a possible alternative to Bulgaria. Sofia is indeed seen by Moscow as a problematic partner under the new centre-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (EurActiv 14/07/09).
"As far as Romania is concerned, I would like to say that no country with serious intentions as to its participation in South Stream will be left aside," Gazprom's executive director for exports, Alexander Medvedev, recently told the Romanian press.
"Romania has a wonderful strategic location on the Black Sea and could be the point of departure for the European section of the pipeline," he added. Until now, planned the point of departure had been the Bulgarian port of Varna (see 'Background').
Asked by EurActiv if the latest move to bring Romania into the project meant that Bulgaria would be sidelined, a Gazprom spokesperson declined to comment.
Over the last few days, the Russian press has been fuming about Bulgaria's pipeline strategies. In particular, Russia took very badly the Bulgarian parliament's ratification on 3 February of an agreement to build Nabucco, seen by Moscow as a rival pipeline designed to decrease the dependence of several EU countries on Russian gas. Bulgaria became the second country after Hungary to ratify the Nabucco agreement.
"Bulgaria will try to delay as much as possible negotiations with Russia on South Stream, while following up the developments regarding Nabucco," Alexey Makarkin, director-general of the Centre for Political Technologies (CPT), told the Russian press.
"If everything with Nabucco were fine, then Bulgaria would just forget about the Russian pipeline, but if Nabucco gets stuck, for example, if its stakeholders cannot find financing, Bulgaria will come back to South Stream," Makarkin continued.
The expert did not rule out the possibility that the Russian authorities, tired of Bulgaria's procrastination, could modify the pipeline route, leaving Sofia empty-handed.
Bulgaria is also demanding that Overgaz, a private company with 50% Gazprom participation, must no longer be the intermediary for buying Russian gas.
Another reason why Moscow is looking for alternatives is Sofia's insistence that Gazprom pays higher taxes for transit across Bulgaria, reports Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner publication in Bulgaria. This was a factor in Moscow's decision to consider building the Black Sea terminal in Romania instead of Bulgaria, Russian daily Vesti writes.