View from Sofia: A difficult choice between Russia and the West

The Bulgarian debate on sanctions, and on relations between the European Union and Russia more generally, has been coloured by Russian propaganda against the West and by seemingly ubiquitous conspiracy theories.

Choosing between the West and Russia has always been a difficult task for Bulgarians, who have historically attributed their national liberation to the Russians and who were during the communist period subject (not unwillingly) to pan-Slavic propaganda from the East.

Between, on the one hand, the push by conspirators and Russophiles in domestic media and politics, and, on the other, the Western-led initiatives for containing Russia, important debates have been heated and security has been at their core.

The pro-Russian far-right Ataka party argues that Bulgaria’s recent foreign borrowing aimed at rolling over existing debt is actually going to be spent on arming Ukraine. Meanwhile, a sense of grievance at the prospect of war is growing in society.

NATO’s recent measures towards increasing the potential for the deployment of a rapid reaction force (RRF) in its eastern members include positioning a NATO coordination centre in Sofia, as well as a maritime commando centre in Varna on the Black Sea.

The president of the traditionally Russophile Bulgarian Socialist Party, Mihail Mikov, has claimed that the NATO structures make Bulgaria a target for Russian action. But Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov immediately rebuffed the notion, saying that “nobody is waging a war against Bulgaria and Bulgaria is not going to war with anyone”. In the context of potential hostilities, the sanctions seem to be a lesser, bearable challenge.

Much of the discussion about sanctions in Europe has been dedicated to energy security and the potential for cut-offs from Russia. The EU’s newly established Energy Union addresses both the poor interconnections within the EU and the security of deliveries from outside.

The European Commission’s communication underlines the particular vulnerability of central and south-eastern Europe as well as the lack of transparency in gas deals between Russia and eastern EU member states. The experience of South Stream showed that sanctions do have an impact on big energy infrastructure projects.

In an interview almost ten years ago, Russian Ambassador to Brussels Vladimir Chizhov, speaking of Bulgaria’s accession to the EU, described Bulgaria as Russia’s Trojan horse “in the good sense”.

Indeed, Russia funded economic projects under Russophile governments in Bulgaria and tried to use the country to push its own economic and energy agenda through it and into the EU. But this policy reached its limits with the cancellation of South Stream – and, it seems, Russia is now backing other “horses” in Europe.

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

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.