A protester, wearing a sweater in the colors of the Bulgarian national flag, sits on the tracks as anti-Corruption demonstrators block the main railway station in Sofia, March 10, 2013.
Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev has been saying for some time now what many leaders in Central Europe and the Balkans do not even dare to think. On May 7, in his speech at the Gdańsk ceremonies marking the end of the Second World War, he called Vladimir Putin a nineteenth-century imperialist who is creating his own spheres of influence in Europe. Only several months earlier,  Plevneliev told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “We all want to see a country, which has produced Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, as a partner. However, facts show that we are dealing with a different Russia nowadays—a nationalist, aggressive state ruled by a president who sees Europe as an opponent, not a partner.” He has consequently continued with his critique, also accusing Moscow of trying to divide the European Union and destabilize the Balkans.

Plevneliev’s anti-Russian stance is a startling change in tone in a country that has long been considered Russia’s Trojan horse in the European Union. In fact, although many of the European Union’s former Eastern Bloc countries—including Poland and the Baltic states—view Russia as a historical occupier and a serious security challenge, Bulgaria has for many years considered Moscow—with whom it shares a common history and similarities in language—to be a good friend. At the height of Soviet power, Bulgaria was one of the Soviet Union’s most pliable allies—to such a degree that the First Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov, proposed several times that Bulgaria become the 16th Soviet republic.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev in Sofia, March 20, 2013.
Stoyan Nenov / Reuters
After the fall of the Soviet Union, only one government in Bulgaria—the center-right administration that ruled in the late 1990s—took a risk to slightly loosen its ties with Moscow. The vast majority of other governments since then have drawn closer to Russia. And the Bulgarian people have applauded: According to a 2012 survey by the Communitas Foundation, 78 percent of Bulgarians view Russia positively, which was the highest among the EU and NATO countries. A 2014 poll revealed that 22 percent expressed a desire to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union.

There is a strong economic incentive for Sofia to cater to Moscow. It purchases nearly 100 percent of its gas from Russia’s Gazprom. Bulgaria’s only nuclear plant in Kozloduy, 75 miles north of Sofia, runs on Russian fuel, and its only oil refinery is fully controlled by Russian Lukoil, which is also the biggest industrial enterprise in Bulgaria, and thus a significant contributor to Bulgaria’s employment and GDP. Finally, Bulgaria is a top vacation spot for the Russian middle class, which contributes roughly 10 percent of the country’s tourism revenues.

It seems like political suicide for Plevneliev to come out so staunchly against Russia and its aggression in Crimea.

And so it would seem like political suicide for Plevneliev to come out so staunchly against Russia and its aggression in Crimea. Yet from the beginning, he has called it “one of the most serious threats to peace and security in Europe since the Second World War.”

Despite Plevneliev’s harsh rhetoric, however, Sofia’s actions toward Ukraine have been mild, even neutral. At the height of the Kiev’s Maidan protests, Bulgarian politicians followed a “do-nothing” policy, passively observing the events and only occasionally mentioning their concern for the Bulgarian minority living in the southwestern Odessa region. The clue as to why that is lies in the poor historical, cultural, and social connections between Bulgaria and Ukraine. Although the two countries share access to the Black Sea, they have always remained rather distant.

Sofia’s weak position in the European Union is another factor. Eight years after EU accession, Bulgaria lags behind other newcomers, such as Hungary, Slovakia, or Romania, and is regarded as a troublemaker, ranked at the bottom of the European Union in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions and Press Freedom indices. It is not surprising then that Sofia would take the mainstream and moderate EU stance on Ukraine in order not to isolate itself even further.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Plevneliev, June 3, 2014. Obama visited Europe to elaborate on U.S. strategy in Ukraine.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

In other words, Sofia’s firm tone with Russia has little to do with concern for stability in Ukraine. Bulgaria’s more assertive strategy toward Moscow is, rather, explained by a combination of Moscow playing offense with Bulgaria and encouraging gestures from the West. Over the last couple of years, Sofia has been crippled by its economic and energy dependence on Russia. Last year, Moscow announced that it was abandoning the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline to Bulgaria through the Black Sea, blaming it on Sofia’s acquiescence to EU opposition to the deal. Immediately after that announcement, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov met with Angela Merkel and the EU Commissioner for Energy Union to ask for their support on energy deals. In January, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, paid a visit to Sofia to advise the government in its search for alternative gas sources. And two months later, the Bulgarian National Assembly ratified the agreement for basic maintenance of a NATO Deployable Communications Module, a unit intended to supply NATO with information for operations. It was the third such unit in Bulgaria, signaling the country’s growing relationship with NATO.

Plevneliev is not alone in Bulgaria in distancing himself from Moscow; many in the current cabinet stand behind him. Minister of Defense Nikolay Nenchev threatened to increase the defense budget in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and then refused to extend a contract for Russian MIG-29 jets. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Mitov, is a rising political star and is belligerently vocal against Moscow, having angered Russia to such a degree that Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, publically called his policy revisionist and accused him of seeking to divide Macedonia.

Boyko Borisov, leader of Bulgaria's center-right GERB party, November 5, 2014.
Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

But, still, the cabinet is headed by Borisov—a leader of the centrist and populist conservative party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria)—who is an extremely unpredictable player. During his first term in office from 2009 to 2013, he sought a balanced policy between the West and Russia, so as not to antagonize either side. This time, he appears to be playing a similar game. On the one hand, he has himself urged the West to act more resolutely against Russian aggression in Ukraine. On the other, he has softened Nenchev and Mitov’s behaviors, as they affected his cabinet’s stability: GERB’s junior coalition partner is a small leftist Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party, which is widely considered pro-Russian.

It is likely, however, that as the crisis in Ukraine deepens, Borisov may be willing to take a more hawkish turn. After all, he has his own bitter memories of dealing with Russia. In March 2013, the Borisov-led cabinet was forced to resign after mass demonstrations against high electricity and hot water prices in the southwestern city of Blagoevgrad, which spread to more than 30 cities across the country. These protests were largely anti-government, and a response to alleged corruption, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation. But the GERB elite and its supporters blamed its woes on Russia. Then Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov said, “It was Gazprom who overthrew our government by raising energy prices contrary to the signed agreements.” Whether true or not, the theory—Russia tampered with energy prices to bring down the Borisov government, which did not work in Moscow’s favor—is now legend.

What Sofia appears to finally understand is that dependence on Russia is not a viable development model and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a direct security threat. This seems to be a belief shared not only by the governing conservative elite, but also by the Bulgarians. A recent poll by Alpha Research revealed that over 70 percent of them support Brussels over Moscow. If Bulgaria is indeed Russia’s Trojan horse in the European Union, it is not a very good one.

  • DARIUSZ KALAN is Head of the Central Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw and a freelance journalist. He has written for The National Interest and Prospect Magazine, among others.
  • More By Dariusz Kalan