Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Bulgaria.
The foreign policy of the current center-right Bulgarian government is rather ambitious—at least by domestic standards and as far as a small country with an even smaller economy goes. Therefore, and for the purposes of encouragement, Bulgaria’s level of foreign policy ambition should be granted 4 out of 5 points.
The reasons for such generosity are fourfold. First, Bulgaria, with the help of the European Commission, effectively stopped the Russian-led South Stream gas pipeline project and discontinued construction of the planned Belene Nuclear Power Plant, which would have used Russian reactors. Second, Sofia has toed the line on the EU sanctions imposed on Russia amid the unfolding Ukraine crisis.
Third, Bulgaria has strongly committed itself to ideas and projects that are federal in nature, such as the EU’s proposed energy union. Finally, Sofia has supported efforts to strengthen NATO’s capabilities in Eastern Europe, for instance by agreeing to host one of the alliance’s new coordination centers on its territory.
The overall aim of the current Bulgarian government is to improve the country’s image in the EU, where some have tended to see it as a Russian Trojan horse. This aim is admirable, but in the Bulgarian case, the true question is whether the government and the country have the resources to live up to their commitments. The answer to this question, which is not trivial, is generally “yes,” but there are also caveats, qualifications, and devilish details.
The main resource that could sustain the government’s ambitions is the fact that most Bulgarians believe EU integration is good for the country. What is more, they trust the EU more than they trust national politicians. As a result, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov puts a lot of effort into building an image of himself as a politician loyal toward the EU and as a reliable ally of the union and of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular.
The previous center-left government of former prime minister Plamen Oresharski had a different position: although it never openly questioned EU authority, it did try to play the role of middleman between Brussels and Moscow on the issue of energy.
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The collapse of the large Russian-sponsored energy projects—South Stream and the Belene plant—discredited this position by making clear that Bulgaria has little to gain from such self-proclaimed mediation. This opened a window of opportunity for the current government to build a clear-cut pro-European outlook.
As a result, another resource that Bulgaria can rely on is a strong pro-European team in the government and the presidency. Since foreign policy is largely in the hands of the cabinet, the Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov deserves a special mention, as he enjoys the trust and support of the country’s powerful prime minister. Similarly, President Rosen Plevneliev, while having more limited powers in foreign policy than the government ministers do, has consistently articulated and defended pro-European positions over the last several years.
There is also a growing understanding within the EU that due to the Ukraine crisis, the union’s Eastern periphery should be the focus of special attention and support. If the Bulgarian people see real expressions of European solidarity—be it in the form of accelerated infrastructure projects such as gas interconnectors with EU neighbors or integrated energy policies that diminish dependence on Russia and reduce energy prices—then the legitimacy and credibility of the current government’s foreign policy will only rise.
However, a number of factors cast a shadow on the Bulgarian government’s ambitions, and these factors cannot be easily discounted.
Three issues stand out. First, the country continues to be almost 100 percent dependent on Russian energy. Russia’s plans to divert gas projects to Turkey not only put Bulgaria at risk of losing money from transit fees; if Russia really does phase out energy transits via Ukraine in the coming years, as it has declared it intends to, Bulgaria might also lose its own direct supply of gas.
Therefore, taking fast steps to integrate the country into EU energy networks is of strategic importance. Bulgarian governments should receive a lot of support from Brussels to avoid the country’s energy isolation.
Second, the Bulgarian public is Russophile to a large extent, which means that the political elite has a difficult job of explaining its policies. This problem is amplified by the nonconstructive behavior of the Left—essentially, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)—which typically conflates cultural and historical affinities between Bulgarians and Russians, on the one hand, with issues of security and energy, on the other.
The Left has gone as far as to take a pro-Russian stance in the Ukraine crisis by staging rallies against the war in eastern Ukraine and by calling for an end to EU sanctions against Russia. Some more radical representatives of the BSP have even argued for Bulgaria’s exit from NATO, although this is not the party’s official position.
The BSP in general is now in a considerable retreat, controlling only 39 out of the 240 seats in the National Assembly. But the fact that a major, established party harbors such views cannot be disregarded as a factor that could potentially undermine Bulgaria’s pro-European positions.
Third, the current coalition government relies on a complex and difficult parliamentary majority that involves four parties. The two biggest—the center-right GERB and Reformist Bloc—are strongly pro-European. This duo, which forms the official coalition, is supported by two further partners: the Patriotic Front is a nationalist-populist formation, while the center-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival is headed by former president Georgi Parvanov, who is a strong advocate of all Russian energy projects in the country.
On the whole, the pro-Europeans have a solid majority in the parliament, but the complex composition of the ruling coalition is a challenge to be reckoned with.
In conclusion, the Bulgarian case illustrates well that national and European politics in the EU’s periphery are already indistinguishable. The current government has placed its bets squarely on the EU and NATO and relies firmly on the foreign policy solidarity of other EU member states.
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If this government falls, its failure will have an effect on the general attitudes of Bulgarians vis-à-vis the EU: many will probably start to question the practicality and benefits of European integration. The hope among Bulgarians is that this dynamic is clearly understood not only in Sofia but also in Brussels and the other EU capitals.
So, Bulgarian ambitions per se are high; but if these ambitions are discounted by the country’s available resources and the costs of cooperation and coordination with other EU members, the overall evaluation of Bulgarian foreign policy might need a downward revision.
Daniel Smilov is the program director for political and legal research at the Center for Liberal Strategies and an associate professor at the University of Sofia.