Bulgaria Must Appease the European Union and Russia Simultaneously

6 MINS READOct 1, 2014 | 09:00 GMT
Bulgarian Foreign Policy
Supporters of Bulgaria's GERB party rally in the town of Veliko Tarnovo in 2013.

Bulgaria will hold early elections Oct. 5 in an attempt to end the cycle of political instability that has forced the poorest member of the European Union to change governments three times in two years. Recent opinion polls give former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party, commonly known by the acronym GERB, around 35 percent of the vote, the Bulgarian Socialist Party roughly 18 percent and the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms party around 14 percent. Other smaller parties are also likely to enter a fragmented parliament where alliances will be necessary to form a government. Regardless of the coalition that ultimately ends up ruling Bulgaria, the next government will have to operate within Bulgaria's geopolitical constraints and priorities, which have traditionally defined the country's foreign and domestic politics. Bulgaria will continue to rely on the European Union for funding and on NATO for security while trying to preserve its strong ties with Russia in order to maintain a balance between Russia and the West.

Bulgaria has traditionally been a poor and weak country that happens to be strategically located on the Black Sea, surrounded by powerful neighbors that include Turkey, Russia and the Germanic world. Because of this, Bulgaria has been under the influence of foreign powers since at least the late 14th century. The longest lasting of these was the Ottoman Empire, which controlled it between the 14th and 19th centuries. Bulgaria achieved independence in the late 1870s after significant help from Moscow, only to fall under Russian influence shortly afterward. Territorial disputes with its Balkan neighbors pushed the Bulgarian government to ally with Austria and Germany in World War I. Under the threat of German invasion, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers during World War II. After the war, Bulgaria became a Russian satellite once more.

Bulgaria and the West

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Bulgaria, along with most of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe, reoriented its foreign policy away from Russia and toward NATO and the European Union. Sofia sought to stimulate Bulgaria's economic development with the European Union's consistent financial support and to guarantee the country's national security by joining a powerful collective security system such as NATO. Despite ideological differences between Bulgaria's political parties, there was broad consensus in joining the European Union — a move Bulgaria made in 2007. Its earlier NATO accession in 2004, however, was more controversial because some sectors of the Bulgarian establishment feared joining the military alliance could harm its historical relations with Russia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the European Union has become Bulgaria's most important trading partner. Seven of Bulgaria's 10 main export destinations are members of the European Union. Germany accounts for over 12 percent of Bulgaria's exports, while Italy, Romania and Greece are also in the top five. As the European Union's poorest member, Bulgaria also attracts a significant share of the bloc's structural funds and Common Agricultural Policy funds. For the 2014-2020 period, the European Union has allocated Bulgaria 7.6 billion euros (around $9.7 billion) in Cohesion Policy funding, 2.3 billion euros for rural development and around 1.5 billion euros from the European Social Fund. This is a significant amount considering that Bulgaria's gross domestic product is only 40 billion euros, although the country will probably not be able to absorb all of the funds because of bureaucratic hurdles and poor management by officials.

Bulgaria Map and Timeline

Bulgaria Map and Timeline

Bulgarian citizens also look to the stronger economies of the European Union as destinations for emigration. According to Eurostat, outbound migration from Bulgaria grew from roughly 3,000 people per year when the country joined the European Union in 2007 to almost 17,000 in 2012.

Bulgaria and Russia 

After the end of the Cold War, Bulgaria's main challenge was to define its relationship with Russia. Sofia applied for NATO and EU membership at a time when Russia was still mired in internal chaos and unable to offer much resistance to former communist countries' alignment with the West. Russia, however, never completely lost its economic and commercial influence over Bulgaria. The country has strong cultural and historical ties with Russia, and most members of the Bulgarian political and business elite still have connections with Moscow dating back to the communist era.

Bulgaria is completely dependent on Russian natural gas and was severely affected by the 2009 energy crisis with Ukraine. Bulgaria also needs Russian companies to invest in its country. Russia's Lukoil owns Bulgaria's only refinery, which is designed to exclusively process Russian crude. Bulgaria also receives a significant number of Russian tourists — roughly 700,000 of the 9 million tourists in Bulgaria in 2013 were Russian — and is also an attractive destination for Russian real estate investors.

Moscow has leveraged its good relationship with Sofia to increase its influence on EU affairs. This explains Sofia's support for the South Stream natural gas pipeline — a project that, according to Brussels, goes against the European Union's Third Energy Package, a set of regulations that promote diversifying ownership in the energy sector. Current and former government officials have expressed support for the pipeline, which, in addition to bypassing Ukraine as a transit country, would attract investment and create jobs in Bulgaria. In recent weeks, Sofia has said it will push for an agreement between Russia and the European Union over South Stream to try to adapt the pipeline to European regulations. Regardless of who wins the Oct. 5 elections, Sofia will continue pursuing this initiative.

Bulgaria's Strategy

Because of Bulgaria's trade, financing and migratory ties with the European Union, Sofia cannot afford to leave the bloc. But Bulgaria's strategy also includes trying to attract as much Russian investment as possible, especially in the energy sector. Because Bulgaria's energy situation is not going to improve any time soon, pragmatism will continue to dominate Sofia's foreign policy.

This does not mean that Bulgaria is not concerned about the crisis in Ukraine and developments around the Black Sea. Sofia sees Romania and Greece as potential political partners, especially because the three countries have similar needs for energy diversification. These countries supported the Nabucco pipeline and are looking for alternative ways to import natural gas from Azerbaijan, including via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. Bulgaria is also interested in remaining within NATO's security umbrella, and the country has been participating in Black Sea naval exercises with the alliance.

These complex strategic needs help to explain Bulgaria's apparently contradictory moves, which range from supporting the South Stream natural gas pipeline to asking NATO to maintain a strong presence in Central and Eastern Europe. Bulgaria's Western ties on the one hand, and its dependence on Russia on the other, limit Sofia's options and shape its future actions. Because of its situation, Bulgaria is interested in a more pragmatic EU approach toward Russia. This means relying on NATO for security and on the European Union for funding while trying not to alienate Russia in the process, something that can be helped by challenging the European Union on certain issues. These main imperatives will continue shaping Bulgaria's foreign policy, no matter who wins on Oct. 5. 

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