Bulgaria’s slow pace of European integration stems from Russia taking full advantage of its failure to make a clean break from communism in 1989.
Almost two decades have passed since Bulgaria became a member state of the European Union. And yet, the country is still the poorest in the EU and remains stuck in the waiting room for accession to the border-free Schengen area.
Much of the blame of Bulgaria’s excruciating slow pace of European integration has been placed on high-level corruption. The European Commission introduced the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) in an effort to assist Bulgaria’s reform process.
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However, the problem is much more widespread than corruption alone. Rather, Bulgaria’s political elite have captured the country’s state institutions for the benefit of private interests with the support of Russia.
In 1989, when communism was falling apart across Central and Eastern Europe, the former communist rulers in Bulgaria simply adopted gradual reforms and accepted the smooth democratic transition in order to hold on to power. Rather than constructing genuine constitutionalism, the public and private sectors blurred. This process would have profound implications for Bulgaria’s post-communist transformation.
Geopolitical dividends for Russia
Boyko Borissov of the centre-right GERB party came to office as Bulgaria’s prime minister in 2009 on a pro-European platform promising to eradicate corruption. As interior minister, Borissov had earned himself an image as someone with no tolerance for corruption and who could move Bulgaria closer to the EU after his socialist predecessors failed to do so. But Borissov’s election victory simply repeated the imitation of democracy that the former Bulgarian communist elite had exercised in the preceding two decades.
During Borissov’s time in office (2009-2017, 2017-21), the separation of powers and the independence of state institutions were dismantled. Meanwhile, EU funds allocated for Bulgaria’s agriculture, construction, and public works were syphoned off. Reeling from unstable coalition governments between 2013 and 2014, Borissov formed an alliance with Delyan Peevsky, a media oligarch, who had control over several newspapers and print media networks. The GERB prime minister gave Peevsky the position of head of Bulgaria’s counter-intelligence agency (DANS).
Russia has been allowed to profit geopolitically from Bulgaria’s flawed post-communist democratic transition. The Kremlin found in Sofia an easy channel to extend its influence into mainland Europe, particularly in the field of energy. Hungary and Serbia have enjoyed safe and secure natural gas supplies thanks to the Russian pipeline, Turkstream, which transfers natural gas between Russia and Turkey via the Black Sea. This came at the cost of 1.5 billion euros of Bulgarian taxpayers’ money as part of the pipeline runs across Bulgarian territory, notwithstanding the fact that Turkstream delivers no gas at all to Bulgarian citizens.
These geopolitical dividends for Russia means that it has an interest in keeping Bulgaria in a state of democratic paralysis. Since Borissov’s defeat in the 2021 parliamentary elections to the reformist We Continue the Change (WCC) party under Kiril Petkov, Russia has made a concerted effort to frustrate Bulgaria’s progress towards reform and further European integration. Petkov lost a parliamentary vote of no confidence for dropping Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession bid. The collapse of Bulgaria’s pro-reform government after only eight months in office was sparked by Russia’s deliberate provocation of the Sofia-Skopje language dispute.
The role of the president
Russia’s efforts to keep the Bulgarian political system from facing any form of accountability can be seen through the anti-democratic actions of Bulgaria’s president, Rumen Radev. Bulgaria’s protracted political crisis of 2021-23 served to benefit the position of the president at the expense of the country’s constitutional order as a parliamentary republic. It was during the period of five successive failed attempts to form a government in Sofia that Radev overstepped his powers with the presidential-appointed caretaker government of Galab Donev.
Radev took control of Bulgaria’s response to the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine by opposing EU support for Kyiv. Bulgarian arms deliveries to Ukraine as a result were slow and often made by intermediaries. Radev’s pro-Russian stance led to Bulgaria becoming an outlier in the EU, with Ukraine criticising the Bulgarian president’s remarks that Kyiv is to blame for the war with Russia. When it came to the negotiations on forming the new GERB-WCC rotational government, Radev tried to derail this process altogether.
A national security issue
A similar phenomenon is found elsewhere in the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. In Czechia, President Miloš Zeman was a pro-Russian voice in European politics, who even sought a referendum on whether his country should leave the EU. The Kremlin’s influence extended to the country’s military, prompting Czechoslovak Group, Prague’s major arms trader, to realign itself with the Kremlin, breaching an agreement with Washington-based SARN Energy. This shift led to a legal dispute in a Delaware court, culminating in the court awarding 3.1 million euros in damages in favour of SARN.
Russia remains to be a thorn in the side of Bulgaria’s democracy and poses a threat to its European integration process. Hungary has maintained investment flows from both Russia and the West under its pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. After Budapest threatened to use its veto on Bulgarian entry into Schengen, Sofia agreed to reverse its decision to impose a tax on Russian gas transiting through Bulgaria.
The EU can no longer simply dismiss corruption as a problem only for Bulgaria to face. Instead, it is a national security issue that Russia has weaponised to undermine the sovereignty of an EU member state.
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