European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015: The view from Sofia

For most of 2014, Bulgaria’s foreign policy was extremely passive. The prime minister carried out no diplomatic visits in the first 10 months of 2014 (a new government took office in November after elections were held on October 5). Very unusually, contacts with European Union partners happened largely at the technical level, with the only exception being the activities of President Rossen Plevneliev, who continued to lead active diplomacy in Europe and beyond.

The reason for Bulgaria’s diplomatic self-isolation was the mistrust within Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski’s government, which was made up of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party associated with ethnic Turks. The government’s appointment in 2013 of a dubious media mogul as head of the State Agency for National Security triggered months-long protests calling for resignation of the government. The reaction of Oresharski’s cabinet to the protests and its very limited will for reforms further eroded confidence in the country’s government.

In this environment, no foreign policy initiatives were conceived – nor were they even possible. This explains Bulgaria’s frequent “supporter” marks in this year’s Scorecard results. Issues that had been traditional elements of Bulgaria’s foreign policy – for example, the Western Balkans and the Black Sea region – received little attention in terms of concrete activities, and development policy was not employed as a tool. The only extremely divisive issue, relations with Russia, caused cracks in the government. Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin went to Kyiv in the aftermath of the occupation of Crimea, with the stated reason of visiting the Bulgarian minority in Ukraine. But meanwhile, the prime minister was raising Bulgaria’s opposition to sanctions on Russia at the European Council in March. For the rest of its mandate, the government refrained from actions that would taint it as Russia’s “Trojan horse” in the EU.

The only significant step outside the course of passivity was the freezing in July of the South Stream gas pipeline project that was intended to provide Russian gas with transit under the Black Sea and through the Balkans to Western Europe, thus circumventing Ukraine. In December, Vladimir Putin suddenly declared the cancellation of the project, citing Bulgaria’s unwillingness to allow the pipeline through its territory.

Bulgaria’s rejection of the project was made after pressure by the European Commission, but the abandonment of the pipeline came at a high cost to Bulgaria, which is almost completely energy dependent on Russia. Therefore, Bulgaria is ranked a leader on diversification of gas dependence away from Russia: it made a difficult decision at the price of its own security but to the benefit of a common European cause.

A big external challenge for the Bulgarian state and society was the large wave of refugees from the wider Middle East. The Bulgarian authorities’ inadequate reaction and the construction of a wire fence at the country’s south-east border gave an additional spark to far-right sentiments. For a while, self-organised citizen-led humanitarian and awareness campaigns seemed to be the only measures put in place to ameliorate the situation. But around the middle of the year, the state took on its regulatory and care-provider role towards the refugees; a newly appointed deputy prime minister in charge of European Policy Coordination and Institutional Matters, including the State Agency for Refugees, is tasked with developing a proactive policy to deal with another possible refugee influx, which is made more likely by the rise of the Islamic State.

This first appeared on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

(Photo: Gazprom)



Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is the head of ECFR’s Wider Europe programme and a senior policy fellow at ECFR. She is the co-founder of Sofia Platform, a venue for dialogue between members of NGOs, the media, and politics from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. From 2010 to 2013 she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the political cabinet of Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov.She has been the head of the Bulgarian office of the European Council for Foreign Relations since 2003, as well as programme director for Foreign Policy Studies at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. Between 2004 and 2006 she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato. She has been a supervising editor for Foreign Policy – Bulgaria magazine since its launch in 2005.