Bulgaria's Turn

Sofia Gives Moscow Some Attitude

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

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