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ANALYST FOR EDIT - BULGARIA/RUSSIA: Anti-Russian Bulgaria? Don't get your hopes up!

Released on 2012-02-27 11:00 GMT

Email-ID 1690024
Date 1970-01-01 01:00:00
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For posting tomorrow morning...

Note to copyeditor: CHRIS, as our resident Bulgarian expert, please feel
free to change anything you may think needs changing, but do let me check
it out before it posts in that case. I will be online at the usual 6:30am,
so I should be available for any chat you may want to have.

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 Sofiaa**s entry into the EU in 2007 under his
leadership and the fact that it had been a member of NATO since 2004.
Bulgaria was seen as a key target for NATO and EU membership so that the
West could block off the rest of the Balkans from Russian influence. From
Sofiaa**s perspective, with its traditional ally Russia weakened
throughout the 1990s and in early 2000s, there seemed to be no alternative
to the Western alliances which promised investment and development.
Bulgariaa**s relatively eager participation in the South Stream project
a** Russian alternative to the EUa**s Nabucco project a** however, has
been lauded as an example of the continuing close collaboration between
Moscow and Sofia and proof of Bulgariaa**s a**Trojan Horsea** status
within the Western alliances, a staunch Russian ally that West was eager,
perhaps too eager, to envelop within its sphere.

Borisova**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 a**EU
rulesa** on energy policy and reverse his opponenta**s policies of cozying
up to Russia. He also campaigned on the idea that he would not be beholden
to Moscow and that he would treat Russia just like any other power, thus
ending any semblance of a special relationship between the EU member
Bulgaria and Russia enjoyed under Stanisheva**s government.

However, the warm relations between Bulgaria and Russia are not a modern
phenomenon, nor are they beholden to any particular governmenta**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 a**Greater Bulgariaa** 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 when
Western Powers alarmed by the prospect intervened, albeit diplomatically,
and greatly reduced Bulgariaa**s territory in the 1878 Berlin Congress.

Russia and Bulgaria continued to have a strong relationship throughout the
20th Century despite Bulgariaa**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 Moscowa**s
regional hegemony.

The oft stated reason for Bulgariaa**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,
Bulgariaa**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 have/had plans of
their own to become regional hegemons. Furthermore, Bulgaria, when overtly
allied with Russia, affords Moscow control of essentially the entire
non-Turkish controlled Black Sea coastline.

Borisova**s initial moves against Russian projects in Bulgaria should
therefore not be taken to signal a fundamental shift in Bulgariaa**s
relations with Russia. Borisova**s government may temper some of the overt
signs of this strong relationship, and recommit Sofia towards its Western
Alliances. However, Borisova**s moves to freeze progress on South Stream
and the Belene power plant are more likely about rooting out his
predecessora**s control of those lucrative projects than about
fundamentally moving Bulgaria away from Russia.