Russia’s Political Influence in Bulgaria

Russia’s Political Influence in Bulgaria

Speaking on July 11, 2019, at an international conference in Batumi, Georgia, European Council President Donald Tusk declared, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was a blessing . . . to the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.” Bulgaria, once labelled the “sixteenth republic” of the Soviet empire for its leadership’s obedient allegiance to Moscow, certainly embraced this “blessing” by becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2004) and then joining the European Union (2007). Unfortunately, even after embracing the principles of a free-market democracy, the small but willing ally of the West continues to struggle to achieve democratic transparency, security stability, and energy diversification.

It is not a coincidence that Bulgaria’s deep historical, cultural, and social-political ties to Russia keep it vulnerable to the Kremlin’s pressures. Pro-Russian political parties, some of which currently comprise the United Patriots as part of the ruling coalition, continue to publicize pro-Russian propaganda, undermine pro-Western political factions, and fuel Soviet nostalgia. In a similar fashion, Moscow has strategically weaponized its energy holdings in Bulgaria through funding anti-fracking movements and disinformation campaigns, allowing Gazprom to maintain its monopoly on gas deliveries, and keeping Sofia vulnerable to future political exploitation.

Political Influence

Back in 2006, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the EU Vladimir Chizhov notoriously told Dnevnik, “Bulgaria is in a good position to become our special partner, a sort of Trojan horse in the EU.” Years later, in 2017, Chizhov corrected himself in an interview with Euractiv, “I never said that. I was asked to comment certain publications which referred to Bulgaria as a Trojan horse. I said I would be happy to see a Trojan horse like that.” Unfortunately, Chizhov’s response, which was two months prior to when Bulgaria’s presidency of the Council of the EU was scheduled to begin, was not reassuring. The legacy of the Cold War meant that Bulgaria became exactly that, not necessarily a proxy of the Kremlin, but a sort of Trojan horse that has to balance the demands of Moscow and Brussels.

When Boyko Borisov, founding chairman of Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was first elected Prime Minister in 2009, he pledged to restore the EU’s trust in Bulgaria after years of a Socialist-led coalition, which Borisov referred to as “the children of members of the former politburo.” Soviet-raised politicians, intellectuals, and oligarchs were at the wheel of Bulgarian politics following the collapse of the USSR. For instance, Sergei D. Stanishev, ex-leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, 2001-2014) and former Prime Minister (2005-2009), was educated at Moscow State University, and completed his political studies at Moscow School for Political Research. Similarly, Andrey Lukanov, an influential BSP party baron and the last communist Prime Minister of Bulgaria, studied at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). In 1995, Lukanov was installed as Gazprom’s representative in the Bulgarian-Russian joint venture Topenergy due to his close links with the first chairman of Gazprom, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Another energy case revolves around Rumen Ovcharov, long-time leader of the BSP in Sofia and former Minister of the Economy and Energy, who graduated from Moscow Power Engineering Institute. The pro-Russian energy maestro left office in 2007 after the Belene Nuclear Power Plant corruption scandal. As stated by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, MGIMO alumni have “found their niche in Bulgaria’s political and economic elite.” Even back in 2006, pro-Western Borisov was identified by then-U.S Ambassador to Bulgaria John Beyrle as an individual with “serious criminal activity” who “maintains close ties to Lukoil and the Russian Embassy.”

Even within this “unvirtuous circle” of Russian influence, certain factions of the Bulgarian political establishment are keen on appealing to their Western counterparts. The 2010 White Paper on Defense and Armed Forces, published by the Department of Defense, outlined changes in Bulgaria’s strategic environment, including the augmentation of negative influences, such as cyber attacks and lack of energy diversification. This concept of strategic rethinking led to an update in the country’s security doctrine, Bulgaria in NATO and European Defence (2014). Unfortunately, the original report was met with a flood of criticism from the BSP, and former President of Bulgaria and leader of the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) Georgi Parvanov accused the Ministry of Defence of poisoning relations with Moscow. The redrafted report presented itself as a toned-down version of the original, but still highlighted the Kremlin’s use of economic pressure within the “hybrid warfare model” and included the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the conflict in Donbas as “one of the most serious threats to peace and security in Europe since the Second World War.” Based on this foreign policy framework, the GERB-led coalition government denied the Russian military access to its airspace, citing its objection to Russia’s bombing campaigns in Syria in 2015.

Unfortunately, Bulgaria’s pro-European establishment is constantly under the fire of anti-Brussels rhetoric. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Bulgaria is home to Europe’s most anti-Western political party (Ataka), Europe’s most anti-Western mainstream party (BSP), and has four more parties ranked in the top 30 of most anti-Western, more than any other European country. All of these parties are against the EU, oppose political and social liberalism, and want to bring an end to the “NATO/EU-centric” security order in favor of a system that would suit Russia’s interests. The ultranationalist, pro-Kremlin Ataka party has most notably propagated, since its foundation in 2005, a trajectory that embraces Moscow—even urging Bulgarians to remember that “it is Mother Russia that liberated us.” Back in 2014, Ataka’s leader Volen Siderov went as far as to start the party’s European election campaign in Moscow, while accusing the United States of instigating a “third world war through which Russia should be brought to its knees.” This was right after Siderov was awarded the “Star of the Fatherland” in Moscow for his contribution(s) to strengthening bilateral relations.[1] Since 2014, however, Ataka’s national polling has decreased  from 4.5 percent in 2014 to around 1 percent in 2017. Ataka did manage to secure a coalition agreement in Borisov’s third government that year, as part of the United Patriots minority partner in government. However, in 2019, the United Patriots coalition “officially disbanded.” In Ataka’s place, the pro-Russian Volya party, led by businessman Veselin Mareshki, acquired 4.16 percent of the vote in the 2017 parliamentary elections. In 2018, Mareshki stated on Bulgarian National Radio that Volya will “go ahead with the idea of a referendum on Bulgaria’s withdrawal from NATO,” as one of its major initiatives in the 2019 European elections. Despite leading a campaign of populism, the right-wing coalition, “Volya-The Bulgarian Patriots,” remained under the threshold in the May elections.

In line with such pro-Russian rhetoric, BSP leadership has criticized Western sanctions against Russia. In 2017, Kornelia Ninova, former leader of the BSP, declared that the party “is against the extension of sanctions against Russia,” and President Rumen Radev went as far as saying that he wants European sanctions against Russia to “be eliminated.” Even during the Crimea crisis, Nikolay Malinov, former member of the BSP and publisher of its unofficial propaganda mouthpiece Duma, congratulated “all Orthodox Slavs” on winning “the Third Crimean War.” Now, as chairman of the nongovernmental Russophiles National Movement, Malinov categorically opposes any “possibility of Bulgarian participation in potential NATO aggression against Russia.” As a result, in May 2019, Malinov was awarded “The Order of Friendship” for  “strengthening friendship and cooperation between peoples.” Just three months later, Malinov was formally charged in Sofia with spying and money laundering, allegedly placing himself at the service of two Russian organizations: the Double-Headed Eagle Society and the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS). Prosecutors stated they had found a Russian-language document prepared by Malinov that outlined “the steps needed to be taken to completely overhaul the geopolitical orientation of Bulgaria away from the West towards Russia.” Just a month later, a Russian diplomat in Sofia, also accused of espionage, was declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country. Then, again, in January 2020, Bulgaria expelled two more Russian diplomats who prosecutors suspect where involved in espionage. According to the Bulgarian officials, their illegal activities included collecting information on the electoral process and energy security.

Energy Dependence

Like a pendulum, Bulgarian politics swings between the needs of the Euro-Atlantic alliance and the desires of the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist ideologues. At times, however, Sofia listens to Moscow’s desires more closely, which is not surprising given that the Kremlin controls the country’s hydrocarbon tap. As pointed out by Dimitar Bechev, Director of the European Policy Institute, the Kremlin’s energy influence in Bulgaria doesn’t just stem from the country’s volume-related consumption of gas, but also from Moscow’s financial and political leverage over local energy projects and policies. Yes, Russia is the sole exporter of natural gas to Bulgaria, and the Kremlin’s TVEL Fuel Company provides all nuclear fuel cycle services in the country, but the complex network of contacts secures Moscow’s interests in Sofia. In the words of former Bulgarian Energy Minister Traicho Traikov, “For Russia, energy has always been a means for the Kremlin to extend its geo-political priorities and financial interests. . . . Enough people in Bulgaria owe favors to Russia so [this policy] is successful.”

Just years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gazprom effectively tried to take control of the pipeline network crossing Bulgaria, as part of a “set of agreements on economic and military cooperation” signed in 1995. Two years later, Sofia purchased the most expensive gas in Europe. In line with Gazprom’s penetration of Bulgaria’s energy market, Lukoil took a controlling interest in Neftohim AD, at the time the largest Bulgarian oil refinery in the Balkans. Sofia welcomed the Kremlin’s efforts, with Georgi Parvanov’s BSP government in the early 2000s facilitating a Sofia-Moscow multi-billion dollar package deal of energy projects, dubbed a “Grand Slam” by Parvanov. The Belene Nuclear Power Plant project (2006) under the guidance of Russia’s AtomstroyExport, the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline (2007), and South Stream Bulgaria (2014) were all set to weaken Bulgaria’s energy security by further tightening the Kremlin’s grip on Sofia’s decision-making process.

Pressure from Brussels and Washington did play a noticeable role in the “Grand Slam” fiasco. In June 2014, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure against Bulgaria for multiple EU energy market violations, including providing the most favorable tax regime to Gazprom. It was revealed that the National Assembly attempted to circumvent EU energy law by introducing legal amendments in favor of the Russian gas monopoly. Tied in with this pro-Kremlin agenda in the Bulgarian legislative body were Gazprom officials who presented recommendations to the Minster of Energy on how to amend the Energy Act in Moscow’s interest. As stated by former Secretary General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation campaigns, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations – environmental organizations working against shale gas – to maintain [Bulgaria’s] dependence on imported Russian gas.” Through clandestine networks, the Kremlin’s commodity conglomerate was involved in financing millions of dollars into anti-fracking protests in Sofia after Bulgaria issued a shale-gas license to Chevron in 2012.

The election of Rumen Radev as President of Bulgaria in 2017 meant that Moscow’s seat in the Largo was secure. After a meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2018, Radev said Bulgaria is reviving plans to develop its Bene Nuclear Power Plant and is open to Russian cooperation, even though previously published reports underlined that the project would be unprofitable. The Kremlin has been pushing Sofia to pursue a policy of energy dependence for over two decades now and is continuing its efforts to politically exploit local elite through further integrating the country into Turkstream 2. Since 2014, Gazprom has prioritized augmenting the Russian supply of natural gas to Western Europe through alternative routes, with the aim of denying Kyiv transit fees and billions of euros in profit. Thus, the pro-Russian energy lobby in Sofia has actively pushed for Bulgaria to cement itself as a transit country for the Kremlin’s natural gas. As a result, on October 21, 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that Bulgaria promised to complete its stretch of the Turkstream gas pipeline by 2020. Shortly thereafter, on January 1, 2020, Bulgaria began taking delivery of Russian natural gas via TurkStream, and on January 8 Boyko Borisov attended, along with Vladimir Putin and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, the inauguration of TurkStream in Istanbul. It should be noted that two days later, the Bulgarian government approved the participation of the country’s main energy company, Bulgartransrgaz, in the EU-sponsored LNG gas terminal in Greece, with Sofia’s share of the terminal set at 20 percent. Given that the main suppliers of the new terminal are expected to be Qatar and the United States, this move can be characterized as part of Bulgaria’s optimistic strategy to partially diversify its gas supply sources. Despite this, Bulgaria remains as the amalgam of a pro-European “façade” democracy, circulating within the sphere of the Kremlin’s energy interests.


[1] As translated by the author