The future looks gloomy for pro-European forces in Bulgaria. The high hopes pinned on the country’s reformist prime minister, Kiril Petkov, were dashed when the parliament controversially voted his cabinet out of office on June 22. The composition of the next government is widely expected to boost the influence of pro-Russian politicians. As a result, according to Petkov, Bulgaria may soon strike a new deal with Russia’s Gazprom and cut assistance to Ukraine, undermining EU solidarity in the face of Russian aggression.
It’s hard to disagree with Petkov and his supporters that this latest reversal of Bulgaria’s reform attempts is regrettable. Moscow’s ability to benefit from this volte-face, however, is far less clear. The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has dealt a severe blow to Russian influence in Bulgaria. With public sympathies for Russia nosediving and Moscow’s dominance of the Bulgarian energy sector all but over, even staunch supporters of cooperation with Russia are being forced to review their position, while the Kremlin no longer has the leverage to keep them onside.
For decades, Moscow’s ability to sway decisions in Sofia has rested on two pillars. The first is pro-Russian public sentiment dating back to the nineteenth century, when Russia played a key role in reestablishing Bulgaria’s independence. The second is Russia’s virtual domination of various parts of Bulgaria’s energy sector, including oil, gas, and nuclear. Both pillars took decades to build and mere weeks to shatter following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Since then, Bulgaria has seen the most spectacular collapse of pro-Russian sympathies in the whole of the EU. According to a Globsec study, the proportion of Bulgarians who view Russia as a strategic partner decreased from 45 percent in 2021 to 30 percent in March 2022. The decline in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image was far more drastic: the share of respondents who viewed him positively plummeted from 70 percent to 29 percent over the same period. This trend condemns Bulgaria’s pro-Russian parties to secondary roles at best, precluding them from leading a government any time soon.
Developments in the energy domain have been even more disastrous for Russia’s influence in Bulgaria. For decades, Gazprom’s monopoly on Bulgarian gas imports, Lukoil’s control over the country’s single oil refinery in Burgas, and Rosatom’s privileged position as a contractor best placed to complete the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant, begun back in the Soviet era, have been generating nontransparent streams of rents, which enabled Moscow to win over leading Bulgarian politicians and bureaucrats, regardless of their party affiliations and foreign policy inclinations. A few months of the war in Ukraine, accompanied by Moscow’s ham-fisted negotiating tactics, have drained all of those streams dry.
Gazprom stopped gas deliveries to Bulgaria abruptly when Sofia refused to pay in Russian rubles. It has emerged that Bulgaria is less dependent on gas than was widely believed, and the country is determined to replace Russian imports with those from Azerbaijan and LNG ports in Greece.
The resumption of marathon talks over the Belene nuclear plant, which had seen another peak of activity in the prewar years, is now unthinkable, while the next consignment of nuclear fuel for the existing Kozloduy power plant is planned to be procured from non-Russian suppliers.
Lukoil is likely to retain its presence in Bulgaria somewhat longer, as the country has negotiated an exemption from the EU oil embargo until the end of 2024. But here, too, the end is in sight. There is talk of imposing operational control over Russian oil assets, and even in the best-case scenario, two and a half years will only be enough time for Lukoil to sell its subsidiaries at a discount and kiss goodbye to its lucrative position on the Bulgarian and neighboring fuel markets.
Having wantonly destroyed so many economic ties—as well as goodwill—with Bulgaria in just a few months, Moscow has no capacity to make a comeback of any significance, regardless of the composition of the next Bulgarian government. General apprehension over rising prices and geopolitical instability may help militant pro-Russian nationalists from the Revival party to score a couple of extra percentage points, but they will remain a marginal player, with less than 10 percent of the popular vote.
Even if Petkov and other reformist forces perform poorly in the early elections, which is the most likely outcome of the crisis, the premiership will pass to Boyko Borissov’s GERB party. Having headed the Bulgarian government for over a decade until last year, Borissov is no reformer, but nor is he a friend of Moscow.
In his early years in power, he enraged the Kremlin by canceling the “big three” Russian energy projects in Bulgaria: the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, the South Stream gas pipeline, and the Belene nuclear power plant. In the later years of his reign, he oversaw seven waves of expulsions of Russian diplomats, as well as investigations into pro-Russian groups. Right now, Borissov is keen to stress his pro-Western stance: he and his party voted to lift Bulgaria’s veto over the start of EU negotiations with North Macedonia, even though it was Borissov who imposed that veto in the first place two years earlier.
To be sure, Borissov’s catch-all party has never been completely immune to Russian lobbying. As time passed, the canceled South Stream was replaced by the smaller TurkStream, while talks on the Belene nuclear plant were quietly revived. Minor rollbacks in Bulgaria’s stance on Ukraine and EU solidarity against Russia cannot be excluded now either. But even if they do occur, they will be limited in terms of both time and scale, since Moscow has self-centeredly stamped out most of the rent sources attractive for Bulgarian politicians.
Bulgarian politics has always been too fluid and chaotic to allow for the rise of a strongman who would feel confident enough to challenge EU policies, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. This is especially true now, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine has united the West more than ever, while Moscow continues to destroy its presence in Europe with its own hands. Bulgaria still has a lot to do in terms of reforms and tackling corruption, and the current diversion from this path is unlikely to be the last one. But the war in Ukraine has rendered Russia largely irrelevant to this process, and the chances of a resurgence are slim.
- Maxim Samorukov