TurkStream Tenderers Also Held Secret Talks at Tzvetelina Borislavova’s Bank

A second document which has surfaced following the hacking of the emails of Aleksander Babakov, a Russian politician featured in several corruption scandals, reveals new details about the TurkStream project which was presented as an upgrade of Bulgaria’s gas transmission network. Yesterday, we published a memo from a secret meeting between the “Bulgarian, Russian and Arab sides” held in Istanbul, following the submission of offers to build the gas network, where illegal negotiations between tenderers, supervised by the Russian side, took place. 

This second document is a letter from Tzvetelina Borislavova, chairperson of the board of the Bulgarian-American Credit Bank (BACB), to Aleksander Vorobyov, Babakov’s advisor and a sanctioned person. According to the letter, BACB had been selected as an investment bank for the project by the contracting parties. It remains unclear who the “contracting parties” are, considering that, on paper, this is a public procurement tender for the upgrade of infrastructure and BACB cannot be anything but the bank servicing the awarding party, state-owned company Bulgartransgaz. Furthermore, the procedure to select a bank to fund the project was only initiated a year later, in June 2020. 

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In the email, Borislavova is asking that Babakov and Gazprom Export be warned about a delay in the implementation of the project because of a decision by one of the participants in the tender, Consortium – Gas Network Development and Expansion in Bulgaria, to dispute the procedure. On paper, the consortium consists of Consortio Varna 1, set up by Bonatti S.p.A. and Max Streicher S.p.A., and Completions Development S.a.R.L. Bulgaria branch. However, the leaked emails reveal that there is a key participant that has remained hidden: the Russian company TMK.

What is scandalous, though, is the larger picture that emerges. Borislavova writes that: “there has been no progress in the talks between Arkad and TMK which took place in our offices in Sofia”. The two companies were ranked first and second following the submission of the tender documents. The email states that “we took the initiative” in organising the negotiations, although it is not clear who is referred to by the pronoun ‘we’. Does it refer to the bank or is the bank acting on behalf of the Bulgarian government? Back then, GERB was the ruling political party and Borislavova was well-known not only as a banker but also for her business and personal ties to the then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. 

Another striking detail is a sentence which warns the recipients that “there are plans for the government to defend the national interest”. How the move to initiate secret agreements between tenderers – representing a gross violation of the Public Procurement Act – is considered to serve the national interest is not clear, though it is clearly prohibited by the law.

Today, as yesterday, we continue to raise the question of who is the real decision-maker behind this project and whether the tender procedure to upgrade the network is not a front for higher-level decisions serving certain geopolitical interests. The last sentence in the email, which suggests seeking alternatives for timely deliveries to Bulgaria’s border with Serbia, provides additional clues as to the answer to the question.

A deputy chairperson of the State Duma and advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexander Babakov is also known for several corruption scandals. Among them is funding to Marine Le Pen’s party in France and an attempt, reported by The New York Times, to bribe a Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Energy in 2013 in relation to the cancelled South Stream gas pipeline.