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Re: ANALYSIS FOR COMMENT - BULGARIA/RUSSIA: Anti-Russian Bulgaria? Don't get your hopes up!

Released on 2012-02-27 11:00 GMT

Email-ID 1672470
Date 2009-07-13 22:01:08

Newly elected Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, has in a letter
on July 13 asked the Economy and Energy Minister Petar Dimitrov to
temporarily freeze the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant
and the development of the South Stream natural gas pipeline project.
Borisov claimed in the letter that the Bulgarian state owned companies
involved in the two projects were not taking into account the economic
crisis in their operations, hinting at financial malfeasance. Both the
Belene nuclear power plant and the South Stream project are being
developed in cooperation with Russian state owned enterprises,
Atomstroyexport and Gazprom respectively.

Russian influence in Bulgaria has always been considered as robust and
the government of outgoing prime minister Sergei Stanishev did nothing
to dispel that notion, despite Sofia's entry into the EU in 2007 under
his leadership and the fact that it had been a member of NATO since
2004. Bulgaria's relatively eager participation in the South Stream
project - Russian alternative to the EU's Nabucco project - has been
lauded as an example of the close collaboration between Moscow and Sofia
and proof of Bulgaria's "Trojan Horse" status within the Western

Borisov's actions, one of his first as incoming prime minister, to
freeze progress on the two major Russian projects within Bulgaria seem
to suggest that he will stick to his campaign promise to play by "EU
rules" on energy policy and reverse his opponent's policies of cozying
up to Russia. He also campaigned that he would not be beholden to Moscow
and that he would treat Russia just like any other power, thus ending
the special relationship enjoyed by Sofia and Moscow under Stanishev's

However, the warm relations between Bulgaria and Russia are not a modern
phenomenon, nor are they beholden to any particular government's
policies. The relationship is rooted in geopolitics and has withstood
the test of time from the 19th Century until today.

Bulgaria owes its independence from the Ottoman Empire in late 19th
Century to Russia which fought the Russo-Turkish War with the intent of
creating a "Greater Bulgaria" with sea access in both the Black Sea and
the Aegean Sea. The Russian plan for an enlarged Bulgaria, which would
have given Russia friendly ports in the Mediterranean, backfired by
alarming Western powers who were forced to intervene, albeit
diplomatically, during the 1878 Berlin Congress and thus greatly reduced
Bulgaria's territory.

Russia and Bulgaria continued to have a strong relationship throughout
the 20th Century despite Bulgaria's decision to side with the Central
Powers in the First World War and subsequently the Axis in the Second.
As an example of its strong link to Moscow, Bulgaria refused to join the
attack against the Soviet Union despite being officially allied with
Nazi Germany. The subsequent communist period in Bulgaria, while not
remembered with nostalgia, does not elicit the same kind of knee jerk
anti-Russian feelings as in much the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
Bulgaria was a loyal member of the Soviet Bloc with no uprisings against
Moscow's regional hegemony.

The oft stated reason for Bulgaria's affinity towards Russia are the
cultural and religious ties between the two countries and these
certainly work well to grease the wheels of the relationship. However,
in reality, Bulgaria's interests are rooted in its geopolitical
circumstances. Surrounded by entities who have historically been
stronger and sometimes outright aggressive towards it -- namely
Turkey/Ottoman Empire to the South, Romania to the north and
Yugoslavia/Serbia to the West, Bulgaria has often relied on Russia to
play the role of its protector and champion in the region. Meanwhile,
from the Russian perspective, Bulgaria affords it a foothold in the
Balkans, much more reliable than the often too independently minded
Serbia and Romania, both of which had plans of their own to become
regional hegemons.

Borisov's initial moves against Russian projects in Bulgaria should
therefore not be taken to signal a fundamental shift in Bulgaria's
relations with Russia. Borisov's government may temper some of the overt
signs of this strong relationship, but his move to freeze progress on
South Stream and the Belene power plant is more likely about rooting out
his predecessor's control of those lucrative projects than about
fundamentally moving Bulgaria away from Russia. Once Borisov feels that
he and his power base are sufficiently in control of all aspects of the
Sofia-Moscow relationship, it is very likely that Bulgaria will continue
to be one of Russia's strongest allies within the EU and NATO.