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26.02.2016.

Russian influence in Bulgaria - a threat to Europe?

It is time that we properly understand Russian activities in Bulgaria, especially in light of recent developments taking place in Ukraine, Syria, and a number of Eastern European countries. Using its old divide et impera tactics, Russia is challenging the unity among EU Member States by taking advantage of a number of different factors including economic links or support for political parties which have especially strong ties with Moscow (like Ataka in Bulgaria). It is time we look closer at Putin’s game, a big part of which is a conflict in the East of Ukraine, and react before it is too late. 

If the Ukrainian conflict has taught us anything, it is that Russia has recently diverted much of its resources and focus from mobilising hard power in protecting its interests to soft power, including funding media outlets and political parties. This shift can be seen very clearly in Bulgaria which is suffering from Moscow’s harmful interferences.

 In November 2006, Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s Ambassador to the EU, famously called Bulgaria “Russia’s would-be Trojan horse in the EU”. Although Bulgaria has long been regarded as the European country most vulnerable to Russian influence, there is no place for a passive reaction from the European side.

The Bulgarian case precisely identifies this new aspect of the Russian influence across the EU.  It describes in detail the ongoing game played by the Russian regime and neatly sums up the contemporary Russian policy towards its former Near Abroad and its attempts to undermine European unity.

By using gas exports as a political weapon in Bulgaria, Russia has succeeded in undermining European solidarity by creating political and economic rifts. As a result, Kremlin (and Gazprom) benefit from these divisions and retain the status of main supplier, while using Bulgaria to promote the reviving of the now aborted South Stream project. With ongoing talks about the second pipeline of North Stream, we cannot neglect previous experiences that we faced with Russia.

However, energy is only one of many ways in which Russia interferes in Bulgarian domestic political and economical life. It has increased its role in the Bulgarian banking system and real estate market, with their most recent purchase of almost 64,000 houses by Russian citizens in Varna and Burgas. With regard to (dis)information, Russia exerts a firm influence by generously funding Bulgarian media both at local and national level. Through a variety of means and channels, Russia is able to broadcast its propaganda throughout Bulgaria.

In the area of army and defence industry, the influence of Russia can also be felt. While Bulgaria continues to rely on the heritage of the soviet period for their military equipment, NATO unsuccessfully tried to modernize it and to increase interoperability with the Alliance.

One could argue that one of the main pillars of the common market is the opportunity to invest abroad, which usually has nothing to do with geopolitics. However, the Bugarian case proves otherwise. For instance, when talking about Western sanctions against Russia, the reluctance of Bulgaria can be explained by its tight economic links with Russia and the pro-Kremlin Ataka party. When some Bulgarian politicians started a debate on defence and security, which has shown the true extent of Russian interference in Bulgaria, pro-Kremlin parties caused a political crisis. Those are only two of many examples of the negative Russian impact on Bulgaria that can be found.

The Bulgarian case should be used by policy advisers and politicians to help them better understand Moscow’s way of acting and to reshape our policy towards Russia. It is important to be aware that before being able to compete in the external dimension, we must secure our internal fundamentals first.

 Tomasz Poręba 

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