Berlin’s Shift on Russia Exposes Sofia

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Berlin's turn to a more assertive policy towards Russia has a direct impact on Sofia. The current government, led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), largely shares the Moscow-friendly outlook of Germany’s SPD. Its leader Sergey Stanishev, born in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, held Russian citizenship until 1996 and is a graduate of the prestigious Moscow State University. Links between business people close to the government and Russia are more than close, especially where the energy trade is concerned. That explains the accommodation line pursued by the cabinet, unwilling to antagonize Moscow. But Sofia has been all too happy to hide behind Germany. For instance, in local debates, Gazprom-friendly voices arguing why South Stream should be granted exception from the EU’s Third Energy Package invariably refer to the precedent set by North Stream. 

The shift in German policy is exposing Bulgaria and putting pressure on the BSP-dominated coalition to toughen its tone. But even the modest criticism voiced by Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin are met with hostility by the Kremlin-friendly party’s rank-and-file.  The government has recurred to classical double-messaging tactics, telling EU partners and Germany in particular it will walk the common line, while assuring its constituents it will never break with Russia and might even veto further sanctions. In the meantime, the Minister of Energy Dragomir Stoynev continues to push hard for South Stream and has been, of late, on a collision course with EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. But if Berlin weighs in more decisively on this dispute Sofia will surely accept that South Stream is off and stop sparring with the Commission. A u-turn on South Stream would produce a great deal of turbulence in Bulgarian politics and might even destroy the governing coalition. 

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