SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — The junior partner in Bulgaria's coalition government bared new dissent with its Socialist leadership on Thursday, calling for early elections this year and expressing caution about a pipeline project that could bypass Ukraine as a transit country for Russian gas.
The comments from Lyutvi Mestan, who leads the mainly ethnic Turkish MRF party, underscored the depth of the Balkan country's months-long political crisis. He called for early parliamentary elections after the Socialists finished a distant second to the center-right GERB party in last month's European elections — exposing limited public support for the government.
MRF's Mestan also voiced disagreement with the Socialists over plans to move on with the South Stream pipeline project led by Gazprom that would allow the Russian government-controlled gas giant to send gas to southern and central Europe under the Black Sea — bypassing Ukraine as a transit country and consolidating Russia's energy grip in the region.
Top Socialist officials have said the construction of South Stream would continue according to plan. Mestan argued that Bulgaria "should not do anything against Brussels" and said it should defend national interests in cooperation with its European Union partners.
Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, a nonpartisan financial expert, has repeatedly assured Brussels that Bulgaria will abide by EU rules, but last week authorities in Sofia awarded the construction of the Bulgarian stretch of South Stream to a consortium led by Russia's Stroytransgaz.
In response, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure Tuesday against Bulgaria and asked the country's authorities to halt construction work, arguing that Bulgaria had not respected EU internal market rules covering the award of public contracts.
The Socialist-MRF coalition, one year into a four-year term, controls exactly half of the seats in the 240-member parliament, and relies on the tacit support of a nationalist party to govern. GERB, meanwhile, has pressured the government with a string of no-confidence votes in parliament, and introduced another one Thursday over the government's allegedly failed financial-sector policies.