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Bulgaria’s zig-zagging. Why does Sofia not quarrel with Moscow but listens to Washington’s advice?

On January 8 this year, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was happily sharing the stage with Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the launch of the TurkStream pipeline in Istanbul. He had good reasons to appear on good terms with the Russian leader. A month before, meeting the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi, Putin had slammed Bulgaria for deliberately dragging its feet over TurkStream’s extension beyond the Turkish border. Borisov assured the Russians that the link to Serbia would be complete by mid-2020, a deadline now missed because of COVID-19. He diplomatically skipped subjects such as the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Sofia in late 2019 or indeed the ongoing investigation into the 2015 poisoning of arms dealer Emilian Gebrev linked to the GRU.

TurkStream illustrates the ambivalence of Bulgarian authorities’ approach to Russia. Since coming back to power in November 2014, Borisov has gone out of his way to accommodate Moscow. He relaunched energy cooperation with Russia by endorsing TurkStream and unfreezing the contract with Rosatom for a nuclear power plant at Belene. Borisov has branded “Balkan Stream” (as TurkStream is known domestically to avoid nationalist backlash) as a self-standing project compatible with EU rules, as opposed to a Russian venture. At the same time, the government invested in diversification of gas supplies. Meeting Donald Trump at the White House last November, Borisov discussed plans to purchase U.S.-produced liquefied natural gas (LNG). Sofia and Athens have joined forces on an offshore terminal in Northern Greece and are making headway with interconnecting their national grids. That is hardly music to the ears of Gazprom which has been rapidly losing market share in Southeast Europe to competitors. In addition, U.S. and Bulgarian law enforcement agencies have stepped up. The American embassy in Sofia hailed the charges brought to three Russian Federation citizens by the Prosecutor General in late January.

Borisov’s balancing act comes as no surprise. It is very much reflective of mainstream public opinion which favors membership in EU and NATO and friendly ties with Russia. Yet there has always been scope for parties and politicians pandering to about a third or so of the electorate who nostalgize about the golden era pre-1989, scapegoat the West, and venerate Vladimir Putin. It is from these groups that the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the largest opposition force, draws its support. The BSP-backed President Rumen Radev was looking forward to taking part in this years’ Victory Day parade on the Red Square only to have his plans cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Than there are ultranationalists like Ataka whose leader Volen Siderov has never made secret of his ties to Moscow. But joining Borisov’s coalition cabinet in 2017-9, Ataka lost much of its edge. Now others are ready to steal its show. Last week, Vazrazhdane (Revival), a small pro-Kremlin party led protests in front of parliament driven by conspiracy theories blaming 5G technology and Microsoft’s Bill Gates for COVID-19. Yet neither BSP, much less Ataka or Vazrazhdane, have a realistic prospect of being in government anytime soon. Moscow will have to deal with Borisov, occasionally applying pressure through its proxies in Bulgarian domestic politics.

What is more remarkable in the shift against Russia by the Prosecutor General. It is an almighty institution, a legacy of the Soviet era. Elected for a seven-year term, the post holder is largely unaccountable and holds enormous clout over the judiciary as well as over political and business elites. That was put on display by the recent incumbent, Ivan Geshev, went after several high-profile tycoons including Vasil Bozhkov, Bulgaria’s richest man who sought refuge in the United Arab Emirates. Geshev’s predecessor and mentor Sotir Tsatsarov had a cozy relationship with Russia. In September 2017, Tsatsarov welcomed his opposite number Yury Chaika in Sofia. Prosecutors shelved the Gebrev case, though he tried to bring it back into the spotlight following the Skripal attacks in March 2018. Media owned by Delyan Peevski, a hugely influential oligarch close to Tsatsarov and, reportedly, business rival of Gebrev’s, downplayed the allegations. The government did not pay much attention either. In contrast to most other EU and NATO member states, Bulgaria did not declare persona non grata Russian diplomatic staff in response to the Skripal affair in the spring of 2018.

Things changed thanks to the Bellingcat and The Insider investigations linking Gebrev poisoning to the events in Salisbury. Facing outside pressure, Prosecutor General Tsatsarov had to re-open the investigation in February 2019 and roll the red carpet for a UK forensic team. In October, a Russian diplomat was forced to leave Sofia over espionage allegations while the incoming defense attache was not issued a visa. Prosecutors brought charges against Nikolay Malinov, a former Socialist lawmaker and leader of the so-called “Russophiles Movement”. Malinov, however, was able to travel to Moscow where he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin himself in November. The US government sanctioned the judge Andon Mitalov who let Malinov free on bail. In January 2020, Bulgarian authorities expelled a consular official and a trade representative. These actions helped Tsatsarov and Geshev, his deputy at the time, burnish their reputation in the West. The duo visited Washington, D.C. in October 2019 along with the heads of the country’s two security agencies, holding talks with the FBI. Geshev, whose election by the Supreme Judicial Council in a one-candidate race caused uproar in civil society, seems to have gotten U.S. blessing.

Such a situation suits perfectly Borisov. With Geshev playing the bad cop, the prime minister has positioned himself as constructive interlocutor for the Kremlin. He has by and large avoided pushback from the pro-Putin opposition, which has limited access to the principal media outlets. President Radev has been marginalized too, as the COVID-19 crisis has shifted attention away to the cabinet and the health authorities. Having delayed TurkStream, the pandemic has also pushed relations with Russia much lower on the list of priorities. Calls by BSP for the Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva‘s resignation, after Bulgaria signed a statement together with the US and nine other Eastern European countries accusing the Kremlin of “manipulating historical facts” related to the Second World War, have failed to trigger a public scandal.

Moscow’s response to Bulgaria’s zig-zagging has been muted. Though Russia expelled a Bulgarian diplomat in December 2019, it has been keeping to business as usual. The Bulgarian government remains committed to joint energy projects, a point Zaharieva conveyed to Sergey Lavrov during their phone call on 27 April (the day the Russian foreign minister was supposed to be in Sofia, had it not been for the coronavirus). Prosecutor General Geshev has meanwhile turned from Russian spooks to businessman his ally Peevski has scores to settle with. And these days Russia has much bigger fish to fry than deal with Bulgaria. That suggests that, for the time being, it will be all quiet on the Eastern front for Sofia. Unless, of course, the Kremlin decides - for reasons of its own – to take a harder line on Bulgaria and use its extensive leverage. Prime Minister Borisov is good at balancing and muddling through. But he would rather not be on Russia’s blacklist.

Author: Dimitar Bechev, nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council. Author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale, 2017)

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