Bulgaria from friend to rival of Russia

From a country viewed by Russia as Europe’s most trusted friend, Bulgaria has turned its back on Moscow and joined the West in supporting Ukraine.

A week after Moscow launched a military operation in Ukraine, Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova scaled the snow-capped Shipka Pass on March 2 to honor Russian Tsarist soldiers who died fighting the Ottoman Empire Helping Bulgaria gain independence in the 19th century.

But today’s Bulgarians don’t seem to remember the Russian soldiers who lost their lives at the Shipka Pass more than 140 years ago. On the same day, Bulgaria expelled two subordinates of the Russian ambassador and announced the arrest of a senior military officer on espionage charges.

Since then, Bulgaria, a country that Moscow has long regarded as Europe’s most trusted friend, has become a rival to Russia as it joined European Union members in imposing tough economic sanctions with Moscow and Ukraine on repairing helicopters and military vehicles to help expel many Russian diplomats.

“Russia has always had a big influence on Bulgaria in the past, but we gave them a big surprise,” Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said in the capital Sofia last week. “You don’t understand what happened.”

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the event in St. Petersburg, Russia in June 2019. Photo: Reuters.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the event in St. Petersburg, Russia in June 2019. Image: Reuters.

The relationship between Russia and Bulgaria, a member of the EU and NATO, used to be very deep as the two countries have many historical, religious and cultural ties. Under the Soviet Union, this connection was so close that Bulgaria was even called the “16th Republic” of the Soviet Union. In November 2021, when he was elected for a second term, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called on the West to promote dialogue with Russia, arguing that sanctions against Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea were not working.

Recent developments show that the Ukraine conflict appears to have caused relations between Russia and Bulgaria to deviate from the direction desired by President Vladimir Putin.

Russia abruptly announced last month that it would stop supplying natural gas to Bulgaria, making the former Balkan ally the first country alongside Poland to suffer the blow from Moscow’s energy weapons.

Petkov accused Moscow of launching cyberattacks on the servers of the Bulgarian state-owned energy company and paralyzing Post’s pension payments. The Bulgarian Prime Minister described it as an attempt to destabilize the country.

Mr Petkov’s coalition government now depends largely on its ability to find alternative sources of energy, with help from the EU and the US. The Bulgarian Prime Minister visited Washington last week, where US Vice President Kamala Harris pledged “unity” in response to the arming of Russian energy.

Assen Vassilev, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria, stressed that Bulgaria is taking steps to secure alternative gas supplies by pipeline from Azerbaijan and by shipping LNG by sea to storage depots of neighboring Greece for shipment to northern Bulgaria.

“For us, Gazprom is now a thing of the past,” Vasilev said. He added that Moscow made the mistake of urging the Balkan countries to shake hands quickly to deal with the risk of Russia suddenly cutting off supplies.

“It makes me very hopeful that energy weapons will backfire,” he said.

The Russian ambassador to Bulgaria, Mitrofanova, has made some offensive remarks in the host country. She even angered former pro-Russian Bulgarians by comparing the campaign in Ukraine to the Tsarist military intervention against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, which helped make Bulgaria an independent state.

“Russia liberated Bulgaria, now it’s time for Russia to liberate Donetsk and Lugansk,” Mitrofanova said in March, referring to two breakaway regions in Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Daniela Koleva, a historian at Sofia University, said the comparison had “created a wave of indignation” in Bulgarian public opinion, as Bulgarians saw it as a one-sided view of history that distorted complex events in the past.

Demonstrators protest against Russia's campaign in Ukraine on May 9 in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Photo: AFP.

Demonstrators protest against Russia’s campaign in Ukraine on May 9 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Picture: AFP.

Ms Koleva said that many Bulgarians admit they benefited from Russia’s help in the 19th century and are still grateful. Opinion polls show that sympathy for Russia is stronger in Bulgaria than in other European countries.

But according to a poll conducted by Bulgarian state television in March after Russia launched its campaign in Ukraine, more than 60% of respondents supported tougher sanctions against Moscow, while the percentage supporting Putin more than halved to 25%.

“The military operation in Ukraine wiped out our feelings for Russia,” said Ruslan Stefanov, program director at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a think tank in Sofia.

When the Bulgarian government submitted a resolution to parliament last week approving “military technical assistance” to Ukraine, even the pro-Russian Socialist Party voted in favour. The only party to vote against was Revival, a nationalist party that has regularly marched in support of the Russian campaign.

Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of Revival, acknowledged that Russia’s decision to cut gas was not a friendly act, but added that it was Bulgaria that “started this war” with Moscow by imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats imposed.

Before Gazprom announced a supply cut at the end of April, 90% of the natural gas consumed by Bulgaria came from Russia.

However, Prime Minister Petkov reiterated that Russia miscalculated when it used gas to exert economic pressure to force Bulgaria to change its policy towards Ukraine.

“If the country that is most dependent on Russia and has the lowest GDP per capita in the EU can match Moscow, the rest of the bloc can do it,” he said.

The EU's dependence on energy imports.  Click on the image to see details.

The EU’s dependence on energy imports. Click on the image to see details.

than tam (Corresponding New York Times)