WSJ: Bulgaria's Western Allies Worry About Eastward Tilt

Views on BG | June 2, 2014, Monday // 08:54
Bulgaria: WSJ: Bulgaria's Western Allies Worry About Eastward Tilt A group of Bulgarians waving flags to mark Victory Day at the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, May 9, 2014. Photo by BGNES

Recent Government Moves Raise Concerns About Moscow's Influence in Former Client

The article is from the Wall Street Journal

Concerns are growing in some Western capitals that Bulgaria, for decades one of the Soviet bloc's most loyal members, could be falling back under Moscow's spell despite having been accepted years ago into Western alliances.

Any eastward tilt in Sofia could undermine efforts by the European Union and the U.S. to present a united front to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia seeks to reassert its influence in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

Bulgaria has been in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for a decade and the EU since 2007. Yet the Balkan nation, with its gold-domed Orthodox churches and communist-era architecture, still feels culturally and politically connected to Russia.

"Russia will always be close to the hearts of Bulgarians," said Yavor Simeonov, head of the governing Socialist party's youth wing. "Bulgaria has always been between Russia and Europe and it shouldn't have to choose. It can take a middle path."

In the past three months, steps by the coalition government have heightened concerns among European diplomats in Sofia and officials in Brussels.

An April legislative package allowing Russia's natural-gas exporter Gazprom to circumvent EU competition regulations for the Bulgarian section of its South Stream pipeline drew warnings of possible penalties from the European Commission, which also noted Bulgaria's new law contained some of the exact same wording as the initial proposal from Gazprom.

While other former Warsaw Pact countries condemned Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March, the Socialist head of parliament's committee on relations with Russia, Mikhail Mirov, sent a letter of congratulations to the Russian parliament.

Although Sofia backed the first round of EU sanctions against Russia, Socialist lawmakers on parliament's foreign-affairs committee put forward a motion in May to oppose any more.

Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski has repeatedly voiced opposition to escalating the sanctions war against Russia, calling for a "balanced position" on the crisis, according to Bulgaria's state news agency.

"We are worried because we see expanding Russian influence in many sectors here," said one senior European diplomat in Sofia. "When it comes to sanctions, the Bulgarians are a potential weak spot for Europe which could be a problem."

Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member state, is potentially more vulnerable to the political fallout of the Ukraine crisis than other countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain.

Staunchly pro-Western Poland is less hooked on Russian energy supplies, as is Romania, which joined the EU with Bulgaria in 2007. Both also drew a more independent path from Moscow during communist times.

The Baltic countries tend to see Moscow as a former occupier, whereas Sofia sees Moscow as a friend. Bulgaria's only oil refinery is controlled by Russia's Lukoil and its only nuclear plant runs on Russian fuel.

"Everyone is concentrating on Ukraine but the crisis also has the potential to push the soft disintegration of the EU," said Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think tank.

"You have very divergent interests between Poles and Baltics, who feel very exposed, and Bulgaria which wants no shift and sees the European position toward Russia as unnecessarily hostile," he said.

Bulgaria's foreign and economy ministries didn't respond to requests for an interview. The governing Socialist party—a direct descendant of the communists who governed Bulgaria before the fall of the Berlin Wall—has repeatedly said it favors a European future, stressing that party leader Sergey Stanishev is also president of the Party of European Socialists.

The Russian Embassy in Sofia didn't respond to calls for comment.

Bulgaria's government has sent pro-Western signals as well, going along with the initial sanctions and taking part in two U.S.-led naval exercises in the Black Sea since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Bulgaria has been on the rough end of Moscow's policy choices too: freezing along with Ukraine in 2009 when Russia cut natural-gas supplies after a price dispute.

Some Western officials suggested that the government's more pronounced pro-Russian rhetoric was related to elections this month for the European Parliament, which the ruling party cast as a referendum on its performance in government. If so, it is unclear what impact it had: The center-right opposition finished first with about 30% of the vote, well ahead of the Socialists with 19%.

Still, pollsters note that Russian propaganda—disseminated through Russian television channels and pro-Moscow newspapers—is increasingly resonating with Bulgarians.

A poll this month by the U.S. firm Gallup found that the number of respondents who backed pro-Russian forces in Ukraine was almost the same as the number who supported the government in Kiev.

A separate poll from Bulgarian pollster Alpha Research at the end of April found that while 40% of people supported the country's EU membership, 22% favored joining Moscow's nascent Customs Union.

"Right now Bulgaria is torn between these two realities. The EU hasn't brought the wealth many people hoped it would in recent years and many are nostalgic for the Soviet past," said Boryana Dimitrova, Alpha Research's director. "We've been called the Trojan horse of Russia in the EU because of its past and that could be true now."

Political analysts Moscow's economic footprint in Bulgaria has expanded—particularly in the energy and media sectors—in recent years while the EU was fixated on battling its sovereign debt crisis.

Russia is Bulgaria's second-biggest trade partner after Germany. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry has said that tough economic sanctions on Moscow would hit about 2,000 Bulgarian companies, employing about 80,000 people.

For many Bulgarians, such links mean the country would be foolish to antagonize Moscow, and should try to bolster relations.

"We shouldn't forget everything we owe to Russia. I was in my 30s when the regime changed but since then I haven't seen any improvement," said Galya Ilieva, a 55-year-old trained engineer now working as a career for the elderly. "We suffered a great loss when we lost access to the Russian market. If we don't start rebuilding these ties we are going nowhere."

But other groups say the government should make its commitment to Europe more clear or it will be drawn into a permanent embrace with Russia

"In Bulgaria, many of us want to be European but everything is going wrong," said Magdalena Guenova, a 38-year-old information-technology manager. "I think Russian influence has always been very big but previously it was in the shadows. Now its on the surface."

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Tags: European Union, U.S., Soviet Bloc, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Gazprom, Plamen Oresharski, European Commission, EC, EU, Sergey Stanishev
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