Written by Igor Gashkov; Originally appeared at TASS, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
Sofia calls its country “the most disciplined and loyal” in the European Union. It is not easy to reconcile this with sympathy for Moscow.
Difficulties in the construction of the Balkan Stream pipeline, espionage and hacking scandals, disputes about Soviet history, reciprocal expulsion of diplomats, arrest of a pro-Russian activist. 2019 was a difficult year in relations between Moscow and Sofia. Business contacts with Russia are extremely beneficial for Bulgaria, but not understood in the European Union. The Balkan state has to manoeuvre. Its public opinion is split between supporters of an independent policy and a pro-European course agreed with Brussels. However, the initiative belongs to those who look at our country with scepticism.
A key project for Russian interests in Bulgaria is the Balkan Stream pipeline, through which gas will flow to southern Europe starting in 2021. The peculiarity of the route is that it will be laid bypassing the Ukraine, which will avoid negotiations with Kiev on the transit. Russia is interested in the early completion of the project and complains about delays: it was hoped that the Stream will begin work at the end of 2019, but the opening date was postponed to the end of 2020.
The proceedings around the Italian-Saudi Consortium Arcad prevented Bulgaria to lay the pipes in time. In April, the company was recognised as the winner of the tender for construction, but soon this decision was cancelled for bureaucratic reasons: Arcad did not provide documentation to the local gas transport operator in time. The profitable order automatically went to the competitors from the firm GDEB, which led to claims from Arcad. The matter was settled only in September, restoring the original winner to its rights, but time was lost.
The delay was the occasion for a cool exchange of views between Sofia and Moscow, forced to continue the difficult Ukrainian bargaining. “Apparently, under pressure from [in Bulgaria], they are carrying out such slow work. We’ll see how this project will continue to be implemented on the Bulgarian territory. If the Bulgarians do not want… well, not the Bulgarians, but the Bulgarian leadership, we will find other ways to realise our opportunities in Europe”, said Vladimir Putin in December. Bulgaria responded coldly. “Everyone has the right to look for alternative routes, we are looking for alternative diversification”, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said, citing difficulties caused by the need to comply with “EU procedures”. “Purely politically, Russia does not like that Bulgaria is such a loyal and strong member of NATO and the EU”, said Borisov, who decided to take the conversation to a completely different level.
However, Sofia did not want to quarrel with Moscow. Vladimir Putin received an invitation from Borisov to inspect the work personally and assurances that they have already picked up pace.
From Russia’s point of view, the delays look suspicious, but it is not necessarily about the Bulgarians’ ill-will attitude, says researcher of the Department of European Political Studies of IMEMO Ekaterina Shumitskaya, but rather their political weakness. In many ways, Bulgaria is a hostage of circumstances.
“Moscow should take into account Bulgaria’s complicated relations with the EU and NATO. Sofia does not always have the fullness of political opportunities. Bulgaria is trying to promote its interests within the European Union as much as possible. But with much difficulty. The most typical example is the collapse of plans to build the South Stream pipeline. Bulgaria did not manage to defend it, and Germany, on the contrary, successfully conducts its Nord Stream 2 through all the instances that are necessary, since the political weight of Berlin is incomparably greater”, the expert notes.
For Bulgaria, this means that it is ready to be friends with Russia, but only if it does not have to sacrifice anything for this.
We won’t anymore
In the spring of 2018, it might seem that Sofia is ready to build relations with Moscow on other principles.
“When the government of Boyko Borisov refused South Stream, they counted on privileges from Brussels, on any significant compensation, but received very little. In addition, the pro-Russian sentiments that exist in Bulgaria played a role. The too unfriendly position towards Russia began to affect Borisov’s popularity and his party GERB – in the presidential elections its representative was defeated. Prime Minister Borisov, who still has more powers than the head of state, could not ignore the changes and was forced to back down”, Pavel Kandel, head of the sector of ethno-political and interstate conflicts of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told TASS.
Bulgaria’s requests to replay everything followed: to lay through its territory a new gas pipeline to replace the failed South Stream. Moscow agreed, and in order to consolidate the rapprochement, Bulgaria took the friendliest step in many years: it refused to expel Russian diplomats because of the Skripal Affair. Sofia sacrificed transatlantic solidarity for the sake of relations with Moscow.
The official reconciliation took place in Moscow, where Prime Minister Borisov apologised for the failure of South Stream, which cost Gazprom $800 million in 2014. “I bear the blame for creating a certain strain. Thank you for no ill feelings. The elders, they are always great and always forgive”, Borisov said at the time. The Kremlin talks turned to another project abandoned in the middle of the decade: the construction of the Belen nuclear power plant, which Sofia scrapped even through the building blocks for it had already been manufactured and delivered to the recipients.
Back to square one
“However, the situation has become worse again. Presently, the prospects for the construction of nuclear plants are very unclear. The EU is against nuclear energy; Sofia lacks the necessary ties to defend its interests in Brussels”, Shumitskaya told TASS, mentioning European funds from which Bulgaria draws on average 2% of its GDP. In this situation, quarrels with the European commission are not in the interests of Prime Minister Borisov and his team. In addition, the underlying idea remains: Brussels can compensate for the losses that result from the severance of ties with Russia, it if is successful.
In 2019, Bulgaria returned to a political line that can only irritate Moscow. Since late summer, unpleasant incidents have followed each other with dizzying frequency. In September, Sofia touched a sensitive chord: it called on the Russian Embassy not to hold an exhibition dedicated to the liberation of Bulgaria during World War II, questioning its cause. “The Soviet Army brought to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe half a century of repression, suffocating civil consciousness, deformed economic development and isolation from the dynamics, processes in developed European countries,” the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said. Only a few days later, the arrest of public figure Nikolai Malinov, who heads the movement “Russophiles”, followed, he was accused of espionage, then released on bail, but with a restriction of his rights; the trial continues to this day.
In October, Sofia announced the capture of another Russian spy: he was an employee of the diplomatic mission, allegedly trying to extract state secrets. The diplomat was expelled from the country. They discovered a “Russian hacker”: it was a 20-year-old local native Kristiyan Boykov. The authorities found that he used the electronic mail on a Russian service provider and he hacked on the eve of Sofia’s purchase of a batch of military equipment from a company from the United States. “Political motives in this case are quite possible. So you can guess”, the Bulgarian Interior Minister Mladen Marinov commented on the Boykov case.
“The majority of Bulgarians love Russia”
However, the current quarrels are not the lowest point in Russian-Bulgarian relations. “Negotiations on joint projects in the energy sector between Moscow and Sofia are creaking, but nevertheless the fact that they are continuing is avppositive signal, Yuri Kvashnin, head of the research sector of the European Union IMERO, told TASS. A few years ago, this was not the case. The Bulgarian side still shows interest, it is objectively profitable to receive resources according to a convenient scheme bypassing the Ukraine”. The difficulties arising between Russia and Bulgaria, Kvashnin considers a manifestation of a more general trend. “Bulgaria, like other countries, is under pressure from the European Commission. And this applies not only to relations with Russia, but also with China. This is a question of the distribution of powers: Brussels insists that interaction with major third powers should be coordinated at the pan-European level. Some countries try to circumvent this requirement and to negotiate separately, but not all of the them succeed”.
All interlocutors of TASS agree that Bulgaria has a reserve of friendly attitude for Russia, even if it is not reflected in the current policy. “When it comes to Russia, public opinion is roughly 50-50”, Shumitskaya says. However, the generational difference is obvious: our country is much more sympathetic to older people, and young people think of Europe”.
The Bulgarian socialist Party (BSP) asked TASS not to equate the course of the authorities with public opinion, which has a “positive attitude” towards Russia. “Most Bulgarian citizens consider Russia as a friendly country, connected with us not only historically, culturally or economically, but also politically. We have not changed our attitude, we consider you as reliable partners, not enemies or opponents and oppose the distortion of the past”, BSP MEP Petar Vitanov told TASS.
Contrary to the position of the current authorities, the Bulgarian socialists continue to celebrate the day of the liberation of Bulgaria by the Soviet authorities on September 9, 1944.