From NATO's eastern border Bulgaria looks warily at its neighbours.
Although there have been some aberrations, Bulgaria’s stance on Russia in the past few years has been very clear and well-balanced both in terms of political action and political rhetoric. In a country where there are high levels of popular sympathises with the Russian ‘big brother’ and where tourism relies substantially (although not exclusively) on Russian tourists, it is a challenge for Bulgarian politicians to make the case for a harsher stance on Russia, even when it is in the country’s interests.
This consistency has been amply demonstrated in Bulgaria’s response to a number of Russian requests to utilise Bulgarian airspace. At the beginning of September, Bulgaria turned down a Russian request to run flights to Latakia in Syria and this position has been consistently upheld in the last six weeks, with requests from Moscow to fly over Bulgarian airspace throughout September turned down. Sofia had serious doubts about the cargo on the airplanes and perhaps would have acceded to the requests had Russia agreed to allow checks of the cargo on Bulgarian territory. That military action took place proves that Bulgarian authorities were right to doubt that it was not humanitarian aid but most probably military equipment that Russia was shipping to its stronghold in Syria. In turning down these requests, Bulgaria proved its willingness to stick to its commitments as both a guardian of NATO’s airspace and an EU member state,.
The September requests were followed by a new one just a few days ago, again rejected by the Bulgarian authorities. However, this time, it turned out that Russia was transporting humanitarian aid and flying back passengers from Syria. In what is widely perceived as a targeted provocation by Russia, this refusal has allowed Moscow to frame a public image of a non-cooperative Bulgaria, a vassal state of the US. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was able to use this to portray Bulgaria as willing to trade “profitable” energy projects (referring to the controversial Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline and Belene nuclear power station) in order to comply with American wises and secure visa-free travel to the US.
Russia’s diplomatic offensive against Bulgaria has been reinforced by military probing. Since the beginning of the year, Bulgarian air forces have regularly confronted Russian aircraft approaching Bulgarian airspace over the Black Sea (NATO’s eastern border), which triggers high alert levels and brings Bulgarian, Romanian and Turkish aircraft into an ongoing ‘cat and mouse’ game with their Russian counterparts.
Against this highly-charged background, Bulgaria’s initial reaction to the Russian military intervention in Syria was not outright condemnation but rather an acknowledgment that only a broad coalition can fight Islamic State in Syria. But the Russian condition of cooperation, that Assad remains in power, is seen as unacceptable by the current administration and was rejected by the previous centre-right government when the war in Syria broke out in 2011. Ground operations are seen as inevitable in the fight against IS, but only if led by the countries in the region.
The expectation that the involvement of Russian forces could force more millions of Syrian migrants to flee for Europe has made Bulgaria look into even closer cooperation with Turkey on containing the refugee influx, with Bulgaria being the first EU country on one of the main routes of migration to the rest of Europe. Before the October European Council meeting Bulgarian prime minister Borissov paid a last-minute visit to Turkey, preceded by a letter to all EU member states advocating what has largely been agreed on at the Council, i.e. an action plan for Turkey’s cooperation to stem the refugee flow to Europe including greater financial support, resuming negotiations on EU membership and visa-free travel as of 2017.
In addition, Bulgaria has become an advocate for a Syria ‘safe zone’ in the north, a proposal long championed by Ankara, but largely rejected by others suspecting Turkey’s attempt to cover an operation against PKK-affiliates rather than fight IS.
Close cooperation with Turkey is, then, key for containing the refugee crisis for both Bulgaria and the EU. The better Turkey deals with it, the easier it is for Bulgaria to deal institutionally with this new situation in a place where immigration, both legal and illegal has not been very common. The vulnerability of the institutional capabilities, demonstrated in a terrible accident only few days ago when an illegal immigrant was wounded by a ricochet and later passed away, could be put to greater test if cooperation with Turkey is not flawless.