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Stuck in post-election limbo, Sofia holds the key to developments in the Black Sea and the Balkans

Another Bulgarian parliamentary election is scheduled for July 11th, after the GERB party failed to form a coalition. The next Bulgarian government will face choices that will have implications for the stability in both the Black Sea and Western Balkans.

May 31, 2021 - Aleksandar Malinov - Articles and Commentary

President Rumen Radev heads the Bulgarian delegation to the Meeting of the Heads of State and Government of the NATO Member States in Brussels in 2018. Photo: Bulgarian Presidential Administration wikimedia.org

“I always say that I want the Black Sea to see sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists and not become an arena of military action… I do not need a war in the Black Sea”. Those were the words of then-prime minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov in the summer of 2016, when he made the pivotal decision not to join a proposed NATO fleet in the Black Sea. The issue of the fleet was first raised by Romania as the Alliance considered what more it could do to deter what it saw as growing Russian aggression. Five years later, Bulgaria is at a crossroads. Borisov’s GERB party lost a significant number of votes in the parliamentary elections on April 4th. Although they still won first place, GERB was not able to form a governing coalition. Since no other party managed to form a coalition as well, a new parliamentary election was scheduled for July 11th. Borisov’s party will not participate in the caretaker government and neither will it be a part of the new, post-election coalition. The new people in power in Sofia will face a stark choice. Either they can keep up Bulgaria’s image as a “Russian trojan horse” inside NATO, or they can transform the country into a significant part of the Western alliance and a stronghold for EU and NATO expansion in the region. Due to this, the decisions taken by the new government in Sofia over the coming months will surely have an impact on two of the most problematic issues concerning the EU and NATO. These are stability in the Western Balkans and countering Russian aggression in the Black Sea.

The fall of a Balkan Colossus

The Bulgarian parliamentary election held on April 4th resulted in a diverse parliament, with no party passing the 50 per cent hurdle needed to form a government alone. Despite ‘winning’ the elections, Borisov’s party lost a massive 300,000 votes compared to its performance in 2017. Additionally, GERB’s previous coalition partners failed to meet the four per cent threshold needed to enter the new parliament. This left Borisov fully isolated and incapable of forming a government. Several corruption scandals and a reform in the election law that aims to minimise vote rigging – signify that GERB is on a downward spiral and most likely will never again be the leading political party in Sofia. As already mentioned by Bulgarian analysts, such results suggest that Bulgarian politics is currently experiencing a period of significant change. There are several important trends that must be mentioned here. First, the end of Borisov’s semi-autocratic rule signifies the end of a 12-year period that saw skyrocketing corruption and left the country firmly at the bottom of the EU in terms of GDP per capita, quality of life and media freedom. Second, although foreign policy was almost missing from the election debates, it seems that Borisov’s strong pro-Russian policies did not win him much electoral support. Third, for the first time since 2005, no nationalist parties gained representation in the parliament. Due to this, they will be unable to support a GERB government, as they did in 2017. This last point is especially important since Bulgarian nationalism is dominated by pro-Russian groups and individuals. The fact that Borisov went into coalition with these parties speaks volumes by itself. In March a Russian spy ring was uncovered inside the Bulgarian defence ministry, which was under the control of the nationalist IMRO party. Another nationalist party and former ally of Borisov, Ataka, proposed holding a referendum to leave NATO back in 2015. 

Putin’s last friend on the Black Sea

Bulgaria’s geographic position in the Balkans gives it the most direct and important strategic position between Europe and Asia. Being one of the three NATO members that border the Black Sea, Bulgaria holds a vital position in the Alliance. At the same time, it sits between conflicting regional powers and this dynamic plays a key role in the country’s political outlook. Bulgaria differed strongly from Estonia, Poland and Romania in its reaction to increased Russian aggression in and around the Black Sea after 2014. Prime Minster Borisov openly bowed to Russian pressure when he cancelled plans for a trilateral fleet with Romania and Turkey, which aimed to strengthen NATO’s stance in the Black Sea. Meeting Jens Stoltenberg in 2019, Borisov even awkwardly proclaimed that Bulgaria was not “a trojan horse of Russia in NATO”. The term was originally used back in 2006 in relation to Bulgaria joining the EU, when Russia’s ambassador to the organisation notoriously said that it would be useful to have a “trojan horse” inside the Alliance. ­­

Bulgaria became a NATO member in 2004 and an EU member in 2007. However, under the leadership of Borisov it turned into an open spoiler for Western security priorities in the wider Black Sea region. It seems that Borisov is following in the footsteps of his previous employer, the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. During Zhivkov’s rule, the country was well-known in both Moscow and the West as being a loyal Soviet satellite that never showed any sign of dissent, unlike Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, Romania or Czechoslovakia. Even though Bulgaria has been energy dependent on Russia for decades, Borisov’s governments supported energy projects that increased the country’s dependence on Russian gas, such as South Stream and Turkish Stream. The second pipeline officially became operational in late 2020, thereby providing Gazprom with the option to expand in the Balkans and into Central Europe.

Borisov’s regular support for Russian positions ruined any potential for security cooperation with Georgia or Ukraine. As a NATO member, Sofia could have played a leading role in these potential relationships. By obstructing collaboration with NATO partners and letting down its allies inside the Alliance, successive GERB governments have succeeded in postponing regional cooperation in the Black Sea. Borisov and his strategy of appeasing Russia have subsequently made Bulgaria irrelevant as a regional player. To be taken seriously in Black Sea security discussions, Sofia needs to trust in its NATO membership and stand up to pressure from Moscow. The next government can look to recent history for inspiration. In 1999 the government led by Ivan Kostov successfully resisted Russian pressure and denied the Kremlin an air corridor to Kosovo. This subsequently put an end to desires in Moscow to strengthen its hand in the ongoing Kosovo War. In this sense, even geography is on the side of Sofia. Bulgaria has no direct border with Russia and therefore is safe from land invasion, unlike Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states. There is no reason that Bulgaria cannot be a more active NATO member and, following the model of Romania, start investing in territorial and collective NATO defence. Now that Turkey is sidelining itself in NATO, Bulgaria’s voice in the Black Sea area could become even more crucial. Sofia could make itself an influential player by increasing defence cooperation with Romania, supporting a NATO presence in the Black Sea, investing in energy interconnectors to guarantee supplies, and starting security cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine.

Postponing the European Balkans

The West has been extremely careful not to further annoy Russia in the Black Sea area after the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. On the other hand, when it comes to integrating the Western Balkans, the EU and NATO have acted like natural leaders in a region that no doubt belongs to Europe. This is clear in a geographical, cultural, historical, and economic sense. This is why Borisov’s decision to block the start of EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is the biggest foreign policy disaster of his career as prime minster. This decision by GERB was also heavily influenced by IMRO, a nationalist junior coalition partner that is led by a former agent of the communist secret service. In late 2020, the veto from Sofia came as nothing less than a shock to Skopje and Brussels, since it was Bulgaria that used its presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018 to lobby for increased attention towards the Western Balkans. This ‘stab in the back’ will not be easily forgotten in North Macedonia and it will take years before relations between the two Balkan countries will return to normal. However, Borisov’s decision to block EU expansion into the Western Balkans has much deeper consequences. This dispute sets a dangerous precedent regarding the overall process of enlargement.

Indeed, there is a risk that historical and cultural issues could increasingly influence decisions regarding membership negotiations. These could eventually overshadow the core values of the EU, such as human rights, the rule of law and the fight against corruption. The possibility of further disputes in the Balkans is high, as anyone with a basic knowledge of the region’s history could confirm. Naturally, Bulgaria’s veto was heavily criticised by Berlin and Washington. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even stated that the Bulgarian veto was a “tragedy”. Janusz Bugajski from the Jamestown Foundation went even further and openly accused Borisov and the Bulgarian government of being a tool of Moscow’s destabilisation policies in the region.
Despite this, there is now renewed hope in Sofia following Borisov’s electoral defeat. The pro-EU coalition ‘Democratic Bulgaria’, which won the most votes in the capital and around 11 per cent of the total vote, has stipulated that a new approach is needed regarding EU negotiations with North Macedonia. For example, Hristo Ivanov, one of the coalition’s leaders, has argued that Bulgaria needs to change its tactics in the region in order to avoid catastrophe. With nationalist parties out of the parliament for now, Sofia has a short window of opportunity to reverse its Balkan strategy and become a pillar of stability in the region. Of course, this goal will be far from easy to achieve. Any new Bulgarian government that attempts to improve relations with Skopje and support EU enlargement, would need the maximum possible support from Brussels and Washington.

Threat of a Balkan vacuum 

The importance of the Balkans in world geopolitics cannot be underestimated. This region sits on a historic crossroads between continents and empires and is also an intersection for major transport and energy infrastructure. On the grand chessboard of Eurasia, the Balkans may well be the most important square. Increased control over this region would give any great power or alliance a massive boost to their power. As a result, the EU and NATO cannot afford to take a “hands-off” approach when it comes to the Balkans. The leaders of both organisations need to be more assertive when dealing with a state as pivotal as Bulgaria. This is a country that must be part of solutions in its neighbourhood and not part of the problem. With the right mix of pragmatic policies from the new government in Sofia and Western political support, Bulgaria can be a key player in resolving two of the most pressing matters in Southeast Europe. These are the full integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and showing resilience in the face of Russian aggression in the Black Sea. Apart from these two issues, having a democratic, stable, and secure Balkans could prove to be increasingly important for the West in the long term if it hopes to control possible refugee crises and curb Chinese influence in Europe.

Aleksandar Malinov is a freelance analyst covering events in the post-Soviet space and the wider Balkan area. He holds a Master’s degrees in East European Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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