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Bulgarian Drivers Block Roads In Gas Price Protest

Several thousand drivers took to the streets and roads of more than 20 cities to protest high prices at the pump, local media report. Also as part of the protests, many loaded minute amounts of gasoline at local fuel stations, paying for it in small change as a symbolic gesture.

Reuters reports that the protests, which led to blockades of the two longest highways in the country along with smaller roads, were this time also sparked by government plans to increase the insurance premiums for older, more polluting cars, which make up the bulk of the Bulgarian passenger vehicle fleet.

In fact, these plans could have been what launched the protests this time: Bulgarian fuel stations have been pretty much been free to do whatever they like with prices, with talk about a cartel between station operators rife in the public space. According to some, the cartel is dominated by Lukoil, which owns and operates the only crude oil refinery in Bulgaria and also manages oil storage tanks across the country.

Since the 2014 oil price collapse, fuel prices at Bulgarian stations fell a lot more slowly and by a lot less than in other countries, but recovered much faster when international benchmarks resumed their climb. Over the past four weeks alone, prices jumped up considerably despite the fact that crude oil benchmarks moved in the other direction. About a week ago, station operators began lowering prices, and this time this lowering has been a lot more noticeable than previous, reluctant responses to global oil market movements.

Lukoil, for instance, lowered the price of the most popular gasoline blend, A95, across its Sofia stations from US$1.36 (2.34 levs) a liter to US$1.33 (2.29 levs) a liter inside a week, followed by Shell and other international fuel retailers. At the same time, A95 at Lukoil stations in Stara Zagora, central Bulgaria, sold for several cents more despite the movements in global oil prices.

Now the antimonopoly watchdog, the Commission for Protection of Competition has said it would look into the price-setting practices of fuel retailers across their different locations.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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