MOSCOW -- Russia's EU envoy on Monday slammed Bulgaria's decision to suspend work on a Kremlin-backed South Stream gas pipeline under pressure from Brussels, calling it a "creeping shift to economic sanctions against Russia."
"It is hard to shake off the feeling that the European Commission's blocking of the start of work on the construction of Bulgaria's key section of South Stream has been done for purely political purposes," Vladimir Chizhov told the state news agency ITAR-TASS.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski announced on Sunday that he had ordered all work on the project to be stopped. The decision came after the EU asked Bulgaria to suspend work on the multinational pipeline designed to bring Russian gas to Europe while bypassing crisis-hit Ukraine.
Also Monday, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said construction of his country's stretch of the pipeline was continuing, disputing a report that it had followed Bulgaria in halting work.
The United States and the European Union have slapped visa bans and travel restrictions on some of President Vladimir Putin's closest aides over Moscow's takeover of Crimea and allegations the Kremlin is fueling unrest in the east of the ex-Soviet country in the worst East-West standoff since the end of the Cold War.
Sofia last month chose a consortium led by Stroytransgaz -- a Russian company subject to U.S. sanctions -- to build the Bulgarian section of the pipeline whose construction was launched by Putin in 2012.
No Punitive Measures
Chizhov noted that while Stroytransgaz was on the U.S. sanctions list, the European Union has not imposed any punitive measures against the Russian company. He called the situation a "test of the EU's ability to conduct policies independent of the United States."
The Russian envoy also noted that Bulgaria's decision came as fiercely anti-Kremlin U.S. Senator John McCain met with Bulgarian leaders in Sofia along with several other senators.
"Those who accuse Russia of using energy as a means of applying pressure should first look in the mirror," Chizhov was quoted as saying.
He said the issue would shortly be raised at a meeting of Russian and European energy officials.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave Putin a month to back down over Ukraine or face more sanctions.
The South Stream pipeline is a major project for reducing Moscow's reliance on Ukraine as a transit country following disputes with Kiev in 2006 and 2009 that led to interruptions of shipments to Europe.
With a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters per year, the main pipeline will stretch nearly 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) from Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to end in Italy.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014