This article is part of K Quarterly # Issue 1 / November-January 2017. Contact us for subscription options on [email protected]
"Will Bulgaria move closer to Russia?", BBC HARDtalk asked the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov in an interview on 25th of October. The question is not surprising, because relations with Russia are a standard issue for many media outlets which still refer to the stereotype describing of Bulgaria as the staunchest ally of the USSR. But the Bulgarian government’s attitude towards Moscow over the past year shows that it might still hold some merit.
Whitin just a couple of months Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov declared that he doesn’t want to wage war against Russia (although nobody has urged him) and his party’s presidential candidate Tsetska Tsatcheva stated that the Western sanctions against Russia should be lifted. What is more, the second GERB government has been trying to please Russia on every energy project that Moscow has promoted in Bulgaria. This turn comes at a time when concerns over Russia’s footprint in Bulgaria are growing concern. The Kremlin Playbook, a research project by the two think-tanks - Bulgarian CSD and the US CSIS, concludes that "Russian economic influence in Bulgaria has often been seen as bordering on state capture". "When it comes to the vast wealth that the Russians are holding inside your country including property, the Russian have you round the neck", HARDtalk’s Stephen Sackur pressed Mr Mitov. The Bulgarian Foreign Minister’s answer was not reassuring: "That is somewhat of a fair assessment"
So is there a Russian U-turn?
The short answer is no, albeit with a lot of nuances. Despite the public declarations in defiance of the Western policy towards Russia, the Bulgarian foreign policy is in line with the EU positions. Sofia has never proposed that sanctions against Moscow be lifted. In October Mr Borissov reluctantly said he would support new sanctions against Russia, because of Moscow’s military operation in the Syrian city of Aleppo that has contributed to the humanitarian crisis there. Even though he vehemently disapproved of the creation of a permanent joint naval force of the Black Sea NATO members, the government didn’t change its position on sending troops in Romania to boost the Alliance’s presence near the Russian borders.
There are three things to consider. First, Mr Borissov genuinely believes that Russia is not only meddling in Bulgarian politics, but that the mass protest that led to his resignation in 2013 were instigated by Moscow, which was unhappy with his energy policies. There is no definite proof of Kremlin’s interference, but this remains a recurrent motive in the PM’s speeches.
Secondly, Mr Borissov is famous for his drive to be a balancer – both when it comes to domestic and international politics. A habit of balancing is not a bad trait, unless applied to things that can’t be balanced, like foreign agression. Or if it substitutes decision-making.
One of the quintessential elements of Boyko Borissov’s international relations thinking can be deduced from a statement on July 2015 about the government’s position on the EU sanctions against Russia: "I pray to God that the big chiefs agree among themselves faster, so that the sanctions are lifted" - an attitude that could easily be called defeatist. Mr Borissov also doesn’t shy away from calling the GERB-nominated President Rossen Plevneliev a "hawk" for his clear positions vis-a-vis Russia.
Billions at stake
Most probably the conciliatory tone can be attributed to Russia’s part in Bulgaria’s massive problems in the energy sector. The first government of Mr Borissov canceled two major projects – the planned Burgas-Alexandroupili oil pipeline with Russian Transneft as a main shareholder and then the construction of Belene Nuclear Power Plant, a 10 bln euro project, which was supposed to be built by Russia’s Rosatom. Mr Borissov has always supportded the third Russian project – the South Stream gas pipeline intended to bypass Ukraine. In September 2014, after the project had been officially frozen in Bulgaria for three monts, and a month before the much-anticipated return of Mr Borissov’s GERB party to power, the Russian company paid an obnoxious sum of money for a land plot on the Bulgarian coastline where South Stream was planned to come ashore. The plot was sold by a Bulgarian bank known for its political connections.
The cancelation of South Stream will have negative consequences for Bulgaria. Russia’s Gazprom will almost certainly build an alternative pipeline that goes through Turkey bypassing Bulgaria (see more in the Energy section of KQ).
An international arbitrage awarded Rosatom 630 mln euro for the canceled NPP Belene project, a very substantial sum for Bulgaria (see more in the Energy section of KQ). The Bulgarian government decided not to appeal the decision and to pay the money, a step that obviously is meant to improve relations with Russia. One explanation for this move is that Sofia hopes Rosatom will in return help selling the equipment for the nuclear power plant which will reduce the Bulgarian losses. The other, more sisinster explanation is that Mr Borissov is paying for other promises he had made to Moscow - promises, he can’t meet now.
It is important to realize that Mr Borissov’s foreign policy in general and attitude towards Russia in particular are based on his domestic agenda and are highly opportunistic. He finds little problem in changing his position on many issues overnight. The messages he delivers to his partners in Brussels and the ones that make it into his monthly appearances on Bulgaria’s morning TV talk-shows may have nothing to do with each other. Yet the lack of pressure from the opposition that flirts with Mr Borissov give him very few reasons to remain coherent in his stances. This, however, might change, as Washingtion and Berlin, which now calls most of the shots in the EU, are both getting nervous.
*The headline alludes to "Always with Germany, never against Russia", a statement atrubutted to the Bulgarian King Boris III (1894-1943)