Bulgaria, the Most Faithful Satellite
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was in Berlin this week... and in Brussels two weeks ago. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel promised him to send experts, something of advisers to Bulgaria; in the heart of the EU, the Commission President vowed the bloc would provide support.
In fact Borisov must have already been an official guest of top European politicians more often within his five weeks in office than his elected predecessor, Plamen Oresharski, in the fourteen months he spent in office. Those critical of Oresharski often pointed out that he tended to visit China, Azerbaijan and Vietnam, the political record of which has quite often been disputed in Europe, shunning his political allies. The truth, others reminded, is that nobody (in the West) invites him anyway.
Some might retort that it was South Stream and the fuss it created around Bulgaria that prompted European leaders to look after Sofia, at least on the level of rhetoric, to keep it in orbit and not to incite anti-European sentiment among a partly pro-Russian population.
There is more to Borisov's fondness for Europe, though.
Two quick explanations seem to emerge. The first comes up if one recalls Borisov's previous mandate, when he and his government gave the opposition ground to describe him as a European "puppet". Sofia was warned about a slightly excessive public deficit in the autumn of 2009 and Finance Minister Simeon Djankov swiftly prepared an "austerity budget" he himself compared to an austerity pizza. Within the next few years, it was mostly "macroeconomic stability" that Borisov boasted about to underscore the effectiveness of his government; but it was also Brussels that stressed Sofia's success. Five years later, a set of EU operational programs were unlocked just in a few weeks after Borisov's GERB returned to power. Is this partly due to his comeback? This would be a good explanation: Borisov has always referred to Europe to justify policies which his German counterpart would have described as "alternativeless". EU programs are therefore an easy -to-grasp tool of EU leverage on Bulgaria.
However, there might be a second reason.
"Bulgaria is the Soviet Union's most faithful satellite," the word was going about in the socialist era and also later, as an ironic reference to still-existing dependencies.
"Bulgaria has a pro-European government," Der Spiegel wrote in August, as an interim cabinet took over from the previous, socialist-led one.
In terms of rhetoric, Georgi Bliznashki's government was not late to confirm this. Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov joined the staunchly pro-Western President Rosen Plevneliev in making harsh comments targeting Moscow, though his actions mostly involved "counter-attacks", where he fended off comments issued by the Russian side. Sofia froze South Stream "more categorically" than its predecessors did. It took a clear stance on the replacement of Bulgaria's Russian-made fighter jets and placed some effort (regardless of the outcome) to defend itself in a stately manner.
Later, the current government kept interim top diplomat Daniel Mitov in office, and he seems as hawkish on Russia as he had been.
Now, with the reluctance of GERB's government to unblock South Stream (which led to the project's demise earlier in December) it seems Sofia is trying to lean even harder on the EU. And even though Borisov declared his intentions to stand up for South Stream, Sofia is already fervently looking for alternatives to the gas pipeline, putting proposals forward and awaiting the EU's response.
Against this background Bulgaria's (political) relationship with Russia is increasingly looking like that of a couple where everyone has been mulling a divorce for some time but has been reluctant to speak out. It is no surprise that Russia has poured a rain of threats and bitter remarks on Bulgaria in the past weeks, pointing it as the main culprit for South Stream's failure, as a country which missed huge economic opportunities, as a bad example of EU integration, as an "unreliable partner"; earlier, as a previously loyal entity which is now "betraying" Moscow.
It is early to see what the outcome might be. Only one thing is certain: Bulgaria is taking the U-turn at a risky speed. Recent developments have been too quick; and what is more, Borisov's second tenure is just the tipping point. Anyone doubting this should recall that South Stream was initially frozen (under combined EU-US pressure) by Plamen Oresharski's government, which had often been described as impeccably pro-Russian.
By uncritically accepting EU positions and prescriptions after having become more hostile toward Russia than ever before, Bulgaria might finally get rid of the "Trojan pawn" image with regard to Russia; but it would also be no wonder if it becomes again "the most faithful satellite," only changing loyalties, without securing any real benefit from its new status.
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