Bulgaria and the Plight of the Small State

Daniela Dos Santos – Portugal

Editor’s Note: This piece speaks directly to another, “The True Strength of Small States.” We recommend that you read both in succession.

The importance of integration and globalization has dominated political discourse for the past few decades. In an interconnected world, small states can be overestimated as being able to turn the international tide or creating a domino effect. However, this overlooks important questions. Can they lead they own independent foreign policies? Do they actually exercise power in the international decision-making processes? The story of Bulgaria, a small country on the Balkan Peninsula, is uncomfortably representative of the experiences of many countries in Eastern Europe. Torn between the interests of Russia and the European Union, their foreign policy often neglects national interests by blindly following the orders of the big players.

Bulgaria has frequently found itself in an existential crisis. With thousands of years of turbulent history, the country often prefers to live in its glorious past and ignore present circumstances. This burden prevents Bulgaria from making independent and sound decisions, particularly with regard to Russia. Many Bulgarians still perceive of Russia as a liberator and close ally. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 marked the end of five-centuries of Ottoman domination and resulted in the establishment of the modern Bulgarian state. The communist regime (1946-1990) made the country a Soviet satellite, creating tight links between the leaders of the two countries. Even today, ghosts of the communist regime still haunt the political scene. The successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the country’s second largest party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, preserves fraternal feelings towards the successor of the USSR—Russia. The majority of the party’s leaders are either the children of prominent communist activists, or former spies for the Communist secret service. On an economic level, Bulgaria still depends on Russia for around 92% of its gas supplies. Attempts to diversify and find alternative energy sources have met opposition in both the oligarchic and the Russophile circles of the government. In addition, Russia accounts for about 2.7% of Bulgaria’s exports, and is vital to the machine, pharmaceutical, and agricultural industries, as well as for tourism. Exploiting these emotional connections and economic advantages are Russia’s favorite instruments to keep Bulgaria on a short leash. The misled trust of the public, and tight hold on key political structures have allowed Russia to influence multiple decisions coming from Bulgarian politicians.

However, it is not only the historical and economic ties with Russia that influence Bulgaria’s national interests. With the dissolution of the USSR and the advancing hegemony of the Western world, the only salvation for the new democracy was to join the queue for European integration. In the new political reality, the country has to make decisions as a member of the European Union. Now, after seven years in the big European family, Bulgaria has, at best, a shared say over key policies. Foreign policy, energy security, economic deals—almost every aspect is either controlled or decided by an institution of the EU. And while the intention is to represent a large and diverse family with common goals and missions, the differences in national interests make this task extremely difficult. The biggest and most vocal states—Germany, France, and Great Britain—expect Bulgaria to conform to their expert analyses and infallible judgment; disobedience, frivolous actions, or unauthorized decisions would be considered highly inappropriate. A possible slip might lead to unpleasant consequences, such as a temporary cut-off from European projects and subsidies. As Bulgaria’s normal operation depends to a great extent on external funding from the European Union, this is to be avoided at all costs. If Bulgaria wants to keep the constant flow of subsidies coming, its best option is to play according to their rules.

Torn between historical heritage and political obligations, the Bulgarian political elite has failed to maintain consistent foreign policy for several years. Constantly fluctuating between Russia’s and the EU’s interests, true Bulgarian interests have been left somewhere along the way. One has been South Stream, the biggest project in the energy sector for Bulgaria in the last decade. The ambitious pipeline project intended to connect Bulgaria and Russia and deliver natural gas to many Eastern and Central European countries. Despite the doubts raised by experts regarding its profitability, a couple of meetings with the President of Russia and the head of Gazprom (the energy company proposing the project) were enough to secure the full support in the government structures. According to an investigation by The New York Times, the “pipeline contracts were given to a company controlled by a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle and politically connected Bulgarian companies.” Three Bulgarian governments failed to properly assess the project and acquiesced to Russia’s ambition for dominance in the region. Nevertheless, the idea of increasing the dependence on Russian gas in one of the most vulnerable countries in the EU was not welcomed by the European Commission. Amidst the crisis in Ukraine, the European Parliament adopted a resolution opposing the construction of the South Stream pipeline in 2014, followed by an infringement procedure against Bulgaria for not complying with the EU policies on energy competition. The project directly contradicted the EU’s legislation on the monopolization of generation and sale operations on behalf of Gazprom. With the active opposition of the EU structures, Putin was forced to cancel the project in December 2014, blaming the Western sanctions and the betrayal from Bulgaria, which was not “acting like an independent state.”

The long saga of South Stream seems to have ended, but the lessons from it should not be ignored. First, three consecutive Bulgarian governments completely disregarded the national interest by not properly evaluating the project and failing to negotiate reasonable conditions for its realization. Instead, their actions were initiated and carried out according to clues and implicit invocations from foreign actors. Second, the big players in Europe do not seem to be overly concerned with Bulgaria’s well-being either. Although following Russia’s plans has often been unfavorable for Bulgaria, constantly sticking to the European regulations is also problematic. The EU’s intervention in South Stream’s case may have prevented Bulgaria from participating in an unprofitable project, but its further sanctions against Russia have undeniably weakened the country’s economy. Despite the numerous pleas to soften the sanctions or provide assistance for the most affected countries, the European Commission has remained passive. As a result, Bulgaria is expected to experience a 70% outflow of Russian tourists, 7.4% decrease of exports to Russia, and the loss of three major energy projects.

For Bulgaria, the conclusions from these examples are rather sad: in the big game of chess, the country is a mere pawn with limited influence in the actual world. As long as the country avoids consciously choosing between past loyalties and current prospects, national control will continue to be a chimera. One thing is certain—it is extremely difficult for the small states to be anything but a mere echo of their vociferous “partners.” Satellite states, puppet governments, and proxy wars may be in the past, but subtle directives, resolutions, oligarchic circles, and economic pressures are no less controlling.

Illustration – Daniela Dos Santos Quaresma