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15 June 2022

Bulgaria is the canary in the gas pipeline for Russia’s relationship with the EU

The travails of Bulgaria’s new government show just how difficult it is for European countries to navigate away from Moscow.

By Maximilian Hess

In October 2020, a photo was leaked of Bulgaria’s then-prime minister Boyko Borisov sleeping beside a pistol and a stack of €500 notes, crystallising an unwelcome image of corruption.

A year of political upheaval ensued, with two inconclusive elections and the emergence of new political forces, including We Continue the Change (PP), a centrist party that campaigned on a “zero corruption” platform. After a third general election in November 2021, PP took the most votes; one of its leaders, Kiril Petkov, is now prime minister.

But Bulgarian politics remains in flux. Petkov’s six-month-old government is arguably at the most risk in Europe of a backlash to the rupture with Russia. It is already teetering on the verge of collapse after the populist-cum-crooner Slavi Trifonov, leader of Petkov’s erstwhile coalition partner ITN, withdrew his support on 8 June. Petkov now must survive with a minority government, seek a new coalition, or hold new elections.

None of these options appear promising, and Moscow’s shadow looms over the process.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a reminder of just how much Bulgaria has achieved over the last 30 years. Once the Soviet Union’s most loyal Warsaw Pact ally, the country joined Nato in 2004 and the EU in 2007 without conflict, though critics called the accessions premature, given Bulgaria’s low economic base, issues with organised crime in politics, and ties to Russia. Concerns remain after repeated scandals and revelations about Russian penetration of Bulgarian security services.

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However, more than 300,000 Ukrainians fled the war for Bulgaria – with around 80,000 still there – as Petkov took a far more reproachful stand vis-à-vis Moscow than any previous Bulgarian government. In April he travelled to Kyiv to coordinate support with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

But this public stance belies his government’s dependence on the Socialist Party, which has long advocated a soft position on Russia. So has Rumen Radev, the president, who was backed by the Socialists in the 2016 and 2021 presidential elections. Radev has even sought to limit links with Nato, vetoing a deal to buy F-16 jets in 2019, though he was subsequently overridden.

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Yet Radev also introduced Petkov, a Harvard-educated economist, to front-line Bulgarian politics, having appointed him to a technocratic government after the April 2021 election resulted in a hung parliament.

That vote revealed Bulgarians’ displeasure with the status quo. Trifonov positioned himself as an outsider ready to upset the traditional political order; his ITN party, launched in February 2020, came second. Two new anti-corruption parties also entered the legislature, such as Democratic Bulgaria (DB), which won 10 per cent.

Another election was called for July – ITN finished first, with DB also gaining seats. Yet still no coalition could be found between Bulgaria’s new forces and the traditional leading parties: the Socialists, Borisov’s GERB or the ethnic minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). When Radev called a third election for November, Petkov launched PP with Asen Vasilev, who served alongside him in the technocratic government.

PP surprised many by winning the most votes, many from ITN. It took 67 of 240 seats. But even with ITN and DB, the anti-establishment forces were 13 short of a majority. At least one of GERB, the Socialists or MRF was needed to form a coalition. All were uncomfortable partners. Each had circled through Bulgaria’s recent governments, representing the status quo that PP had campaigned against.

Petkov opted for the Socialists, who were reeling from their worst-ever result with just 10 per cent of votes. However, as the price of their cooperation, he had to give the Socialist leader Korneliya Ninova the economy ministry.

Petkov’s PP-ITN-DB-Socialist coalition was beset by internal tensions from the beginning, with accusations of political preference flying and tensions over the terms with which Bulgaria should support North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. Trifonov cited this as his reason for withdrawing support, but it is Petkov’s handling of Russian and Ukrainian affairs that may determine his survival from here.

The prime minister was initially hesitant in responding to the invasion – opposition parties such as GERB and MRF pushed for the government to do more. But after Petkov’s visit to Kyiv, when the topic of providing arms was raised, the Socialists’ used their leverage to stop it.

Ninova threatened to collapse the coalition if arms were supplied. MRF, GERB and even Petkov’s coalition partner DB proposed to do just that but they were outvoted: Petkov had to settle for the legislature only authoring repairs for Ukrainian military equipment. Ninova has since declared the “case is closed”, though the opposition continues to push such proposals – even after ITN’s withdrawal from government.

It is not the first time that Russian affairs have ruptured Bulgarian governments. The South Stream project – a Russian gas pipeline aiming to bypass Ukraine under the Black Sea – resulted in the collapse of a Socialist-led government in 2014 after Russia first invaded Ukraine, when then-coalition partner MRF came out against it and called for new elections. The pipeline would be scrapped thereafter, amid US sanctions threats and prodding from Brussels.

But Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian gas continued, at least until Petkov in April refused Gazprom’s demand that Sofia pay in roubles. Gazprom cut off the supply – Petkov labelled it an attempt to collapse his government. But even as other EU states like Italy and Germany have allowed such payments, Petkov has vowed to push on with securing alternate sources. A new interconnector with Greece will open as early as July, facilitating liquefied natural gas supplies.

Yet the Bulgarian economy is still dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. The Burgas refinery, owned by Russia’s Lukoil, dominates domestic supplies. It has long attracted controversy for paying almost no tax, despite average annual revenues of €2.6bn. When the EU finally agreed its latest package of Russian oil sanctions on 30 May, a carve-out was included that allowed Lukoil to continue to supply Burgas. Ninova hailed it as “an indisputable success”.

[See also: Going Dutch could help break Europe’s addiction to Russian gas]

Professor Emily Holland, who researches Russian energy politics at the US Naval War College, told the New Statesman that Burgas’s exception will give “Bulgaria time to restructure the refinery to adjust to refining non-Russian oil”.

The exemption may very well have been the price Petkov has to pay for remaining in office, at least with support from the Socialists, whose position is only enhanced by Trifonov’s withdrawal.

Petkov seems like a breath of fresh air for Bulgarian politics, and he has made Bulgaria a model for moving away from Russian gas. But his government, and the economy, remain susceptible to Russian pressure given the Socialists’ role.

The wider political landscape remains troubled as well – Borisov was detained in March and faces numerous probes, including over ties to Lukoil. Given the negative public perception of GERB and the MRF, Petkov continues to rule out an alliance with them. Meanwhile, the far-right pro-Russian Revival party holds 13 votes – enough to tip any no-confidence vote. No alternative coalition has emerged, and polls have changed little.

Extracting Russia’s influence from Europe’s political landscape cannot be done overnight. The struggles of Bulgaria highlight just how far there still is to go in that process, and how doing it haphazardly could allow Moscow to put its foot back in the door.

[See also: Angela Merkel’s self-justification over Ukraine doesn’t add up]

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