Bulgaria and the Ukrainian Conflict – at Crossroads with the Russian Federation and the EU

Marina Petrova

Ignat Ignev, Wikimedia Commons

‘Westernised’ Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia, Ignat Ignev, Wikimedia Commons

Much has been written on the Ukrainian conflict – from the causes of its outbreak through the suffering of the Ukrainian people to analyses on the possible resolutions of the crisis – and rightfully so. The Ukrainian conflict has shaken European and international politics, leaving aghast policy-makers in Brussels and across the Atlantic. Despite of, or some would correctly argue on the basis of, many different streams of analysis, this short article would attempt to labour on the difficult position of Bulgaria in this conflict.

Bulgaria has been at the heart of the Ukrainian conflict, having vital interests at stake. The country’s official position with regards to the Ukrainian crisis is constrained by both its EU membership and its close historic ties with Russia. The reluctance of Sofia to wholeheartedly embrace the EU imposed sanctions on Moscow stem from both economic and cultural considerations, additionally strained by the pressure from the political and business elite in the country.

Bulgarians hold Russians in great affection for the fact that in 1878 Russian troops assisted in the liberation of the country from the Ottoman yoke that lasted for five centuries. Moreover, during the course of the Cold War, Bulgaria was a staunch supporter of the communist regime in Moscow and perhaps the most loyal Soviet satellite in Europe. The two countries have shared cultural and religious values that are not easily disregarded despite the recent tumultuous developments in Russia’s foreign policy in the European continent.

It is not solely cultural and historic ties that keep Russia and Bulgaria close. Bulgaria has a vested economic interest in having friendly relations with Moscow since the country is heavily dependent on oil and gas coming from the Russian Federation. Gas imports are supplied only by the Russian Federation, while oil imports – the other major dependency – are provided solely by Moscow and Kiev. Thus, Bulgaria remains particularly susceptible to energy shocks and its energy security could be greatly threatened by negative developments with regards to the Ukrainian crisis.

Another important factor is the tourism industry in Bulgaria with Russian holidaymakers being one of the major nationalities to spend their vacation in the country. Approximately 400,000 Russians own properties in Bulgaria benefitting from the opening of a wide range of Russian supermarkets, travel agencies and schools. Russian buyers also make up for 80% of the sales in properties at the Black Sea resorts. Given the favourable conditions in Bulgaria, it is not surprising that the National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria recorded in 2014 a total number of more than 650,000 Russians who visited the country.

A recent study conducted by Alpha Research shows that Bulgarians overall see their country’s future closely aligned with the EU, however, there are still strong positive sentiments towards the Russian Federation. The identified trend is that older people continuously sympathise with Russian policies while the younger generation appears to be strongly pro-European. However, out of the 1000 citizens participating in this study, close to 30% have diminished level of sympathy for the Russian Federation after the annexation of Crimea. In relation to public attitudes regarding additional sanctions on the Russian Federation in the event of violation of the ceasefire agreement in Ukraine, the majority (61%) of those polled are against it.

In relation to the EU sanctions against the Russian Federation Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Mitov admitted: “We enforce them not because we want to, but because we have to”. This statement, therefore, is in line with the discussed above public attitudes regarding Bulgarian relations with the EU and the Russian Federation in the context of the Ukrainian crisis.

Ultimately, Bulgaria greatly values its long-awaited EU membership and despite its affection for the Russian Federation, the raison d’état allies with the EU bloc, yet keeping the door open to friendly and economically beneficial Bulgarian-Russian ties. After all, 65% of all investment in the country comes from EU aid funds and the vast majority of Bulgarian total trade is with EU. Therefore, it would be implausible to state that Bulgaria is anywhere near to choosing Moscow over Brussels in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. It is reasonable though to make the point that Bulgaria is placed in a very difficult position with limited bargaining chips. With various dependencies both on the EU and the Russian Federation, Bulgaria’s political leadership and diplomatic corps would require skilful negotiation so as to work for the national interest – close alignment with the EU, but also strong economic and cultural relations with the Russian Federation.

The political and economic reality in Bulgaria is such that the country is omnibalancing – seeking to please external actors, but simultaneously to accommodate the political and economic actuality in the country. It is clear that a breakdown of the relations between Moscow and Sofia would be economically disastrous for the small EU member state, but it is also true that non-compliance with the overarching decisions coming from Brussels would translate into a freeze of relations with the EU bloc. After all, Bulgaria is dependent on EU funds and investment to remain economically viable, while the energy sector heavily relies on Russian supplies. These dependencies constrain to a great extent the room for Bulgarian policy-makers to manoeuvre in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. Bulgaria’s improved position in relation to the Ukrainian conflict would require strong political leadership that would skilfully use diplomatic channels to negotiate and warm relations with the Russian Federation, while remaining a committed member of the EU.

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