When Antonio Tajani, European Parliament President, visited Bulgaria earlier this week, the country’s political leadership was keen to project the image of unwavering commitment to the EU.
During the visit, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov even claimed that Bulgarians are among the least Eurosceptic in Eastern Europe. But as is the case with most things in the Balkans, the country’s position in the EU is not so clear-cut. As Russia is making increasingly assertive moves to spread its influence across Eastern Europe, whether Bulgaria will stand steadfast has become a matter of debate.
Over the years, surveys have revealed that Bulgarian public opinion toward the EU often hangs in a precarious balance. The most recent Eurobarometer of September 2017, for example, revealed that 55 percent of respondents had a positive image of the EU. Although this result is indicative of a mild upward trend compared to the previous year, such a razor thin margin hardly means that Sofia’s European path is set in stone.
Having always had one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has been performing a particularly delicate balancing act between the EU and Russia. Incumbent President Rumen Radev has hedged his bets in both directions, positioning himself in favor of maintaining friendly relations with Russia, while repeatedly stressing his Euro-Atlantic inclinations. While this leaves his true stance on the EU ambiguous, foreign diplomats ultimately found it unlikely that Radev would avert Bulgaria’s pro-EU course.
However, times have become more complicated and the carefully maintained balance is at risk to come undone. With the EU going through its arguably most difficult time since its inception, and with US President Donald Trump eager for better ties with Moscow, the EU is rapidly losing its role as the anchor fastening Bulgaria to the West. Russia was quick to jump on this opportunity to turn Bulgaria – as well as other Eastern EU members – away from Brussels, and draw Sofia closer into its orbit.
At the same time, rising nationalism with strong anti-European currents is increasingly weakening Radev’s hand. There is little doubt that the flames of nationalism are stoked by Russia. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Eurosceptic and anti-NATO/US publications per year increased 16-fold and 34-fold, respectively. Meanwhile, availability of Russia-friendly propaganda increased 144 times, giving Bulgaria’s media landscape a distinctly pro-Russian touch.
The effects of this subversive campaign were clearly felt in the 2017 parliamentary elections, where Bulgaria’s government came to include far-right nationalist parties for the first time. They are opposing sanctions against Russia and have threatened to topple the government if it supported retaliatory measures against Moscow. In the 2016 presidential race, Krasimir Karachakanov, running on a conservative platform of nationalism and Orthodoxism, came in third place. Coupled with Bulgaria’s sizable Russian population, his party remains a potential vehicle for Russia to induce a decidedly anti-Western tone in public debates.
Even if the elections ultimately saw Radev emerge victoriously, his room for strategic action against Russia is critically restrained: Bulgaria is highly vulnerable to Russian pressure, owing to the fact that Russian companies own the Bulgarian energy market. Gazprom is the only natural gas player in the country, and controls the infrastructure to deliver half of the country’s gas resources. Lukoil is similarly positioned in fuel production and distribution, owning the only oil refinery and 50% of the wholesale fuel market.
Not only is Bulgaria’s energy security already shaky, but the problem could get worse. Moscow’s recently offered to provide the necessary funding for the modernization of Bulgaria’s energy sector. If this ambition came to pass, Russia would succeed in firmly entrenching itself further and pose an energy threat to Europe at large. Russia’s sway over the industry could see it potentially repeat the 2009 gas cut-off in Bulgaria and in Southeastern European countries depending on Bulgarian supply.
However, this is precisely where Brussels has the chance to step in and loosen Moscow’s chokehold. Through its Energy Union instrument, designed to improve the EU’s energy security through supply diversification, it possesses a potent means to counter Russian investments with European ones. The EU’s support and guidance is definitely needed to offset Bulgaria’s structural energy problems, including delays in building critical energy infrastructure – a gap Russia is only too eager to fill. As an added benefit, the Energy Union adds legal weight to the push-back on Russian energy firms like Gazprom, which the EU is investigating for abusing its market position by charging excessively high gas prices in Bulgaria.
More positive engagement with Bulgaria through the Energy Union could help reduce shortfalls in other areas crucial for reducing dependence on Russia, especially as the regulatory environment and trustworthiness of the authorities are concerned. Arbitrary enforcement of the rule of law is constantly cited as a primary reasons by investors to avoid the country. A clear commitment to help Bulgaria tackle its problems through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CMV) would go a long way to encourage reforms that make the Bulgarian market more attractive to Western investors.
And that cooperation with the Energy Union yields positive results is more than wishful thinking. Lithuania managed to overcome its crippling dependency on Russian energy by diversifying its supply with the EU’s help. It began importing Scandinavian gas in 2014, opened an LNG terminal in Klaipėda, and inaugurated an electric grid link with Poland and Sweden in 2016. In fact, the EU’s engagement has already reduced Bulgaria’s reliance on Russia as well, as the Energy Union is slowly undermining the monopoly of Russian energy companies.
The EU has a chance to shine by providing positive examples of its actions in the country and thereby counter Russia’s battle for Bulgarian’s minds. Though closer engagement through the Energy Union and the CMV can only be a part in a broader strategy of improving conditions in Bulgaria, they are important steps in increasing economic and social opportunities through Western participation, rather than Russia’s.