Bulgaria is dependent on Russian gas, but it is also a member of NATO and the European Union. Straddling the gap between Moscow and Brussels has put the country in a foreign policy quagmire.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev’s and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s recent visits to Russia have fueled speculation that Sofia may be turning its back on the West and aligning with Moscow. Bulgaria, which is a European Union member state, is dependent on Russian gas, and there has even been talk of reviving Bulgaria’s Belene nuclear power plant project using Russian technology. Economic ties aside, Bulgaria and Russia also have much in common historically, linguistically and culturally. This longstanding relationship has made Bulgaria reluctant to freeze out Moscow since joining NATO and the EU.
Parts of Bulgaria’s political establishment insist the country could act as a mediator between Russia and the West, or at least capitalize on its good ties with Moscow. It’s in this context that the name of Bulgaria’s World War II-era leader, Czar Boris III, often comes up. In 1942, he allegedly told Nazi Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that “[Bulgaria] will always be on Germany’s side and never against Russia.”
A flawed historic example
Yet perpetually citing this problematic ― and historically unverified ― quote belies the true nature of the EU. The bloc is not, as the quote may be used to imply, a product of great power politics, thrust onto others by Germany, France, the United States or Russia. Indeed, Bulgaria is not being forced to ally with one side or another, unlike in World War II, when Boris III found himself weighing up whether German or Russian troops presented the greater threat to his country.
The EU is about voluntarily engaging in European integration. No country was ever forced to join the bloc, and some member states are even reluctant to enlarge it. Countries are also free to leave, as Brexit demonstrates.
Bulgaria is not somehow under pressure to distance itself from Russia. If, however, you have made the sovereign decision to join the EU and partner with its 27 member states, then you must also accept its policies. If there is an agreed EU approach towards Russia, then it must be followed. But this is not, as some may claim, an instance where policy is somehow being “dictated by others.”
The EU-Russia relationship
Present-day apologists for Boris III’s quote would probably argue that it is proving prescient, as Germany and Russia are seemingly growing closer. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both traveled to Russia in May for talks with President Vladimir Putin. But given the EU’s resolute stance on key issues like the Ukraine conflict, Syria, Iran and the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, it is in fact is doubtful that Germany and Russia are truly strengthening their ties. Recent talks with Russia have only gone forward in order to save the Iran nuclear deal and discuss economic matters.
None of this signals a strategic reorientation of the EU towards Russia, as is often claimed in Bulgaria. NATO and the US remain the guarantors of EU security and that is not set to change anytime soon, because despite the rocky relations between Washington and Brussels of late, both sides benefit from this strategic alliance.
Bulgarian politicians must honor the responsibilities that come with being a NATO and EU member, instead of trying to capitalize on the strained EU-Russia relationship. Membership in those Western organizations continues to pay off, which is why Bulgaria should not play diplomatic Russian roulette.
Daniel Smilov is a Bulgarian political and legal researcher at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.