Despite strong Russia ties, Bulgaria's Euro-Atlantic course is steady

As Bulgaria assumes its EU presidency on 1 January, 2018, distinct voices in the Western public discourse question the commitment to Euro-Atlantic values of this country – especially after the election of Rumen Radev, an air force officer considered to be Kremlin’s bet in last year’s presidential race. Despite a clear pro-Russia tendency in its politics and Russian ties of various sorts, Bulgaria’s dependency on Moscow is being exaggerated.

It is not just Socialist BSP or extreme parties, such as Ataka, who are Kremlin-friendly

 

Radev was supported during November 2016 elections by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) adamantly opposed to EU’s Russia sanctions. However, not just BSP or extreme parties, such as Ataka, are Kremlin-friendly. Former President Rosen Plevneliev didn’t run for another term after the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria Party (GERB) withdrew their support because of his pro-Western views and strong criticism of Russia. After winning the March parliamentary elections, GERB reaffirmed its support for EU’s Russian sanctions. Pro-Russian tendencies in Bulgaria are strong enough for a pro-European party to treat them with consideration during elections. In views on Russia  Bulgarian politics mirror the society. Two 2017 surveys showed that while 42% of the Bulgarians count on Russia for their security, 55% are supporting their EU membership; an earlier Alpha Research poll shows 62.8% of Bulgarians favours  EU and NATO over Russia.

In Bulgaria as well as in other Eastern European countries, Russia aims to erode public support for the EU membership through the migrant crisis. Bulgaria blamed Brussels’ ineffectiveness for allowing migrants get into the Union, and is afraid that current unfriendly relations with Turkey could reopen the Balkan route. Sofia was criticised by the EC for its’ asylum-seekers handling, a gesture probably resented in Bulgaria that announced it would not accept the migrants sent back under EU’s Dublin regulations. Some 77% of the Bulgarians oppose migration from Africa and the Middle East. Russia is looking to exploit this sentiment, especially since its other tools of influence in Bulgaria seem to be failing.

 

Russia is Bulgaria’s number one source of imports but Sofia is not damaged by sanctions

 

Despite EU’s sanctions and a drop from €5.35 billion in 2013 to €3.55 billion in 2015 in bilateral trade, Russia remains Bulgaria’s second trading partner. Yet, Bulgaria’s exports to Russia are insignificant,  making it unsusceptible to damage from the EU-Russia sanctions war, as noted in May by Bulgaria’s MFA. The sanctions’ impact was much exaggerated by BSP during the last elections. Other than the Russian counter-sanctions, Bulgarian export to Russia was impacted by the drop in crude oil prices, and the weakening of the ruble, which affected Russians’ purchase power. The “Kremlin playbook” from CSIS, a US think-tank, depicts Bulgaria as a “captured state”, where Russian economic activity accounts for 22% of its GDP, more than in Hungary, Latvia, or Serbia. Almost 700,000 Russians visited Bulgaria in 2013, a number which fell by 30% to 500,000 in 2015. The economic intertwining exerts pressure on politics, especially by the business elite, but the links are mainly in energy. Russia is Bulgaria’s no. 1 source of imports, 70% of these imports are hydrocarbons.

Despite importing 90% of its natural gas from Russia, Bulgaria’s situation is improving. The imports are constantly shrinking, from 6.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 1989 to 2.9 bcm in 2015. Moreover, the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB), the first Romanian pipeline connection or deliveries from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Socar field are expected to cut Gazprom’s share in Bulgaria’s gas import to a half by 2020.

Moscow’s leverage on Bulgaria’s energy infrastructure is seemingly ending

 

Kremlin also traditionally exerted influence over Bulgaria’s energy security through infrastructure. The construction of the Bulgarian section of the Russian-sponsored South Stream pipeline was estimated to bring a €4.1bn construction job but was cancelled by Moscow after Bulgaria pressed with the EU’s Third Energy Package requirement to open the pipeline to competitors. Lost transit revenues and jobs aside, the cancellation of the project laid the premises for the Turkish Stream initiative Moscow undertook with Istanbul instead, weakening Bulgaria’s transition position. In 2012, Bulgaria abandoned the Belene nuclear power plant project for which Russia offered a €2bn loan after the government wanted to include American and European investors to rival Russian offers. It subsequently paid €600 million in compensation to Russian investors over the cancellation. Moscow’s leverage on Bulgaria’s energy infrastructure is seemingly ending. It does come at a price.

 

Bulgaria’s aircraft fleet still consists entirely of MiG, Sukhoi, or Antonov machines

 

Bulgaria’s dependence on Russia for spare parts for its Soviet-era hardware is especially prominent within Bulgaria’s aircraft fleet formed entirely of MiG, Sukhoi, or Antonov machines, though Sofia is undertaking steps to gradually replace them. Additionally, Bulgarian arms manufacturers have to respect Russia’s industrial property rights. Radev, who in 2016 resigned as Bulgaria’s Airforce Commander protesting Sofia’s proposal to establish a NATO Air Policing mission over Bulgaria, displayed a duplicitous stance in this regard. In 2015, when a Polish firm won a tender for the maintenance and upgrade of Bulgaria’s MiG-29s, Radev argued Russia had a better offer. After becoming president, however, he did stress that Bulgaria can only achieve air force interoperability with NATO by purchasing Western-made machines. Dodging equipment dependency in former Warsaw Pact countries is a complicated task, especially with low defence spending. In 2017 Bulgaria is expected to spend less than the 1.51 % GDP in 2016 but Defence Ministry wants to spend 1.8bn on rearmament in 2017-2029.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (L) welcomes the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani (R),â during their official meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, 21 November 2017.
Radev himself could not reject the geopolitical direction of Bulgaria. Here pictured with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani in Sofia. 

 

Contrary to Russia’s interests, Bulgaria is championing Euro-Atlantic expansion in the Balkans

 

Political divisions on essential foreign policy questions didn’t affect Bulgaria’s NATO membership as one might assume. During his January visit at NATO HQ, Radev underscored he will maintain Bulgaria’s troop’s commitment to missions abroad, and keep providing vessels for NATO Black Sea patrols. Sofia is also participating in NATO’s Tailored Presence Forward initiative, providing troops for NATO’s permanent force recently inaugurated in Romania. Additionally, a number of Bulgarian military facilities are committed to joint US usage. Among these, Novo Selo Training Area stands out as a NATO top facility for armoured training. As a PESCO signatory, Bulgaria is committed to EU defence initiatives and plans to focus on security during its EU Council Presidency. Contrary to Russia’s interests in the Balkans, as highlighted by last October Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, Bulgaria is championing Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. For NATO, Bulgaria’s is key for countering Russia’s long-standing geopolitical objective, the Bosfor Straight, but also as a link maintaining the geographic continuity of the Alliance.

 

Bulgaria’s concrete actions speaking louder than political rhetoric

Bulgaria’s strong ties to Russia cannot be overlooked, but should not be overestimated either. For cultural and historical reasons, a significant number of Bulgarians sympathise with Russia. The financial and economic ties seem very strong mainly between rich and powerful Russians and Bulgarians, something that likely originates in Bulgaria’s notorious institutional corruption. Is also clear that many Bulgarians do not approve of Russia’s leverage in their country, and even more would not conceive exchanging their current geopolitical path, status and the security guarantees they enjoy as members of Euro-Atlantic communities for an enhanced cooperation with Moscow. Bulgaria’s concrete actions speak louder than political rhetoric. Unless a major rift or some unwanted changes in the status-quo intervene from within these communities, Bulgaria will likely continue to follow its Euro-Atlantic integration course.

 

 

 

About author: Mihai Turcanu

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