The Red Line
Episode 91. Bulgaria: Russia's Backdoor into Europe?
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Bulgaria currently stands at a crossroads, with one group pulling the country toward the West, and an alliance of corruption, crime, and capture tethering the country toward Russia. These already high tensions are now also widening further, with the Bulgarian population heading to the polls for the fifth time in two years, and increasingly fringe candidates skewing internal discourse.
Will Bulgaria be able to finally divest itself away from Moscow, or will it continue to act as a backdoor for Russian influence into the EU and NATO? We ask our panel of experts.
Part 1: Moscow's Back Door (4:34)
Georgi Gotev kicks us off by describing the domestic political polarisation within Bulgaria, noting the instability that has prevented stable government in recent years, and how Moscow's influence has accelerated this process.
Gotev notes that Russian influence has been significantly negatively impacted by the Ukrainian invasion, but there is still an active pro-Russian faction within Russia fuelled by social media and disinformation campaigns.
We discuss the role of organised crime within Bulgarian politics, which has evolved into white collar corruption in addition to lower level violence and intimidation tactics.
This corruption has not been eradicated through Bulgaria joining the EU in 2007, with the media and government seemingly reflecting a public opinion that it is too ingrained to be changed.
We discuss domestic attitudes to NATO, with support for Bulgarian membership consistently one of the lowest in the alliance. These views were not helped when leaked US cables revealed that officials were instructed not to share sensitive information with Bulgaria, due to leaks to Russia.
We conclude Part 1 by considering which geopolitical powers it may turn to in the future, given the somewhat strained relations with their US and EU counterparts.
Part 2: A Crowded Neighbourhood (21:59)
Daniela Žuvela commences Part 2 noting that the deep ties between Russia and Bulgaria, similar to the Central Asian republics, continue to shape public attitudes and the information environment domestically.
We discuss the impact of the war on Ukraine on the wider region, noting a rise in ultra-nationalist sentiments in places like Serbia, which Russia has sought to encourage.
Bulgaria received a waiver from the EU to continue to import oil from Russia, noting their deep dependency on Russian energy. Some of this has been pumped into the EU, including indirectly to Ukraine, leading to sanctions from Russia but no stop to the oil imports. We discuss the calculus behind this balancing act.
We pivot to discussing the rise and extent of Chinese influence within the Balkans, with a focus on energy infrastructure in the region, as well as deepening security ties with Serbia, and how those moves have been perceived in the region.
Part 3: Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts (35:58)
Vessela Tcherneva notes that internal discourse over the last decade have contributed to a declining support for NATO within Bulgaria, despite remaining the primary architecture for its security posture.
We discuss the leaked US cables accusing Bulgaria of leaking sensitive intelligence to Russia and the challenges facing Bulgaria in stamping out corruption and foreign influence.
We examine the relationship between Bulgaria and Turkey, noting increasing energy infrastructure collaboration, as well as one the border between the two nation's remaining one of the busiest entry points into Europe.
We discuss the possibility of Bulgaria vetoing attempts by North Macedonia to join the EU and if that threat is credible, given the potential fallout, should momentum build.
We talk about the Petkov Government's decision to support Ukraine, including through the timely delivery of diesel fuel during the early weeks of the invasion, and its role in the ultimate downfall of the Administration in late 2022.
We conclude by looking ahead to the upcoming elections on 2 April and the critical junction Bulgaria faces between the EU and Russia, through challenges such as energy infrastructure, economic support, border security, and national sentiment.
Journalist and Senior Editor for EURACTIV's Global Europe policy hub and the Editor-in-Chief of EURACTIV's Bulgarian edition
Gotev was part of the diplomatic team who opened the Bulgarian mission to the European Communities in 1993
In 2007-2008 he was the Spokesperson of the Stability Pact for southeastern Europe
Geopolitical Risk Analyst with Fortescue Metals Group, specialising in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the South Caucuses
She serves on a foreign affairs committee for the Australian Government
Senior Analyst for The Red Line
Deputy Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Head, ECFR Sofia
Previously she served as Foreign Policy Advisor to President Kiril Petkov, between January and July 2022 and including Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Between 2010 and 2013 she served as the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet.
The Red Line's Bulgarian Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of Bulgaria and its geopolitical position within the Balkans.
Shadow Play: Behind the Lines and Under Fire
Robert D. Kaplan
Bulgaria: Environmental, Social and Economic Challenges
Teodora Raya Danailov
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This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Robert Durrette, Ahmed Naser, None, Tony, Michael Conboy, and Travis Russell.