SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) -- The president of the European Union's executive arm traveled Saturday to Bulgaria for the opening of a natural gas link between the country and Greece, emphasizing the EU's determination to stop relying on Russian energy imports.
Speaking at a ceremony in Sofia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the pipeline as an important contribution to limiting opportunities for Russia to use its gas and oil reserves to blackmail or punish the EU.
"This pipeline changes the energy security situation for Europe. This project means freedom," von der Leyen told an audience that included heads of state and government from the region.
The European Commission committed nearly 250 million euros to finance the project, von der Leyen said.
The importance of the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria pipeline, which was completed in July, has significantly risen after Moscow decided to turn its natural gas deliveries into a political weapon.
In late April, Russia cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria after it refused Moscow's demand to pay for the deliveries in rubles, Russia's currency. Relations between the two former Soviet bloc allies have tanked in recent months, and last month Bulgaria ordered the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats, triggering an angry response from Moscow.
"People in Bulgaria and across Europe are feeling the consequences of Russia's war. But thanks to projects like this, Europe will have enough gas for the winter," von der Leyen said. "Europe has everything it needs to break free from our dependency on Russia. It is a matter of political will.
The 182-kilometer (115-mile) conduit runs from the northeastern Greek city of Komotini, where it links to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, up to Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria. Plans call for an initial capacity of 3 billion cubic meters of gas a year, and the prospect of future expansion to 5 billion cubic meters.
The Bulgarian executive of the project, Teodora Georgieva, said the pipeline would help supply other countries in southeastern Europe.
"We have the opportunity to supply gas to the Western Balkans, to ensure supplies to Moldova and Ukraine," Georgieva said.