Will Bulgaria take Russia’s side?

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“I’d like to congratulate all Orthodox Slavs around the world on winning the Third Crimean War and remind them that the Balkans come next. I reckon all Russophiles around this table may congratulate ourselves.” No, this did not come from the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, but from a member of Parliament of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), currently in government. He appeared on a prime-time TV talk show discussing the fallout of the ongoing confrontation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West over Crimea. In fairness, Nikolay Malinov, who happens to be the owner of the Duma daily, the BSP’s unofficial mouthpiece, should get a thumbs up. For he dared voice the sentiments held by the party’s rank and file. The Socialists, whose leader Sergei Stanishev also chairs the Party of European Socialists (PES), have been careful enough to pay lip service to the emerging consensus within the EU. Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin, on a visit to Berlin last week, said Bulgaria would not accept the outcome of the secession referendum in Crimea. Sofia also went along with the decisions of the EU Council on 6 March as well as the hawkish statement issued by the North Atlantic Council.  Last Saturday, however, a BSP plenum vehemently attacked Vigenin, called for a “balanced approach” and more or less blamed the Crimean crisis on Yatsenyuk’s cabinet.  Despite the annexation, the Socialists have drafted a declaration for the parliament calling for withdrawal of the Russian troops from the peninsula but also urging Ukraine to “decrease political tension and prevent violations of human rights.”  Reading the draft, one could almost conclude that Ukraine invaded Russia, not vice versa.

The Socialist leadership wants to have its cake and eat it too. Stanishev, born in Ukraine’s Kherson, assures his friends in Europe that he won’t break ranks over Russia.  And then he goes on to reassure the dyed-in-the-wool Russophile party activists that Bulgaria is not about to confront brotherly Russia.  As one of the party’s grandees put it, “[n]ever against the EU, never against Russia.” But with Western sanctions phasing in, this precarious balancing act is bound to falter. The question is whether the double-talk will trigger a major spat with the likes of Malinov who want Sofia to recognise the annexation of Crimea. “I can’t recall Russia deciding on anything over the past 1000 years and not obtaining it”, he opined on TV.  His views are shared by the extreme right Ataka party, which supports the government in parliament. Its leader Volen Siderov, known for his wild charges against “Europederasty”, echoes Putin’s view that Kosovo has set a precedent and pushes for outright recognition of Russia’s territorial expansion.

Will sanctions have costs beyond threatening the unity of the Socialist party? Plenty has been written on the possible economic costs for Bulgaria’s of an escalation of the spat between Brussels and Moscow. To be sure, Bulgaria is nearly 100 percent dependent on supplies of Russian gas and oil. But at this juncture a full-blown trade war or suspension of gas deliveries like we saw in 2009 is a distant prospect. What’s all too real however is EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger’s decision to delay talks with Russia on renegotiating the terms of the South Stream pipeline. Now this is really bad news for the Bulgarian cabinet, which has already pumped €100 million of public money into the joint company with Gazprom. As the wait drags on, government-friendly oligarchs are getting anxious for their chance to dip into the pipeline pot. This eagerness goes a long way in explaining attitudes toward Moscow among the political and business elites in Sofia. It is not for nothing that ECFR’s Scorecard labelled Bulgaria a slacker when it comes to energy relations with Russia. 

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