Why Bulgaria’s EU presidency will be a litmus test for Brussels

Why Bulgaria’s EU presidency will be a litmus test for Brussels
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For the next six months, two men who might have symbolized Bulgaria's old guard instead will stand front and center in debates over Europe's future. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is a one-time bodyguard to Bulgaria’s last reigning monarch; President Rumen Radev is a former MiG-29 jet pilot. The rivals are locked in political battle over judicial independence and global outlook in one of Europe's newest member states.

At any other time, their struggles might have escaped notice on the European Union's periphery. Now that Bulgaria holds the EU presidency, however, could the repercussions be felt in Brussels and Washington?

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Observers have good reason to worry. Despite Bulgaria’s commitment to regional unity, its outsized dependence on Russian gas alarms many in Brussels and Washington. Radev maintains close ties to Russian elites and criticizes the West’s standpoint on Ukraine’s crisis. Given his support for lifting sanctions on Moscow, many tend to perceive Bulgaria as a Trojan horse state in the EU and NATO. Add to the mix Bulgaria’s sometimes-hostile attitude towards Western investors, and the recipe for disaster is complete.

 

Though the benefits of EU membership are readily apparent — with living standards improving significantly over the past 10 years — Sofia’s entrenched culture of corruption has left many economically disenfranchised. Bulgaria's court system is in shambles, the media are in the hands of powerful oligarchs, and its democratic norms are subject to the whims of the political elite.

Foreign investment has a hard time keeping up. Many Western investors resort to international arbitration to recover losses; as of 2015, 4,000 cases had been filed, an exponential increase over previous years. In 2017, CEZ, a Czech power distributor, announced it was pulling out of Bulgaria and selling its assets, following multiple disputes with regulators. Austria’s EVN, a second Czech company, Energo-Pro and CEZ have opened separate proceedings seeking hundreds of millions of euros after being slapped with fines deemed abusive. As a result, foreign investment has plummeted from a high of $9.8 billion in 2008 to around a billion last year.

Against this tense backdrop, Bulgarians elected Radev as their president in 2016. True to his reputation, Radev recently vetoed an anti-corruption bill on grounds that it doesn’t go far enough, a move widely perceived as a backhanded attempt to derail progress in this area. Parliament has overwritten that veto, but the debate has descended into partisan squabbling.

The Kremlin’s recent attempts to meddle into elections across Western democracies (even allegedly trying to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro) makes Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian energy interests troubling. A recent U.S. Senate report shows that more than 300 Bulgarian websites are dedicated to disseminating Russian disinformation. A growing number of right-wing parties challenged the EU’s regional unity even before the Brexit vote, and Sofia’s presidency now emerges as a potential threat to an embattled and overstretched Brussels elite. It likewise threatens to undermine NATO’s unity on the Kremlin’s military threat in Eastern Europe.

But simply thinking about Bulgaria as a pawn in the Kremlin’s game in the region is a dangerous simplification that has far-reaching consequences.

Buffer state

The small Balkan country of 7 million people is at a crossroads, torn between European and Washington interests and historic ties to Russia. For many in the country — especially older Bulgarians — Russia is a fellow Slavic nation with a “big brother” reputation. Other than the Cyrillic alphabet, cultural ties revolve around Moscow’s rescue of Sofia from Ottoman rule in 1878. Similarly, Russians perceive Bulgaria as an extension of their country. This complex relationship explains Russian investments in the country, which account for more than 22 percent of the Balkan nation’s gross domestic product. At the same time, a whopping 57 percent of Bulgarians trust the EU, the second highest figure in the Union after Lithuania.

This cleavage has given rise to political tensions. On one hand, the new cosmopolitan generation of Bulgarians sees a future in the EU and NATO and shares common democratic values. On the other, the older generation still reels from the failed 1990s “shock therapy” economic reforms, which destroyed the country’s industrial base and yielded high unemployment. It’s no wonder many of them are nostalgic about Soviet times and sometimes express anti-western sentiments.

But despite its many warts, we should not write off Bulgaria. Instead, we should help it to reform. While many talking heads say the EU presidency will be a test for Sofia, its six-month term in fact will be a litmus test for Brussels.

First, the presidency should be a chance for other European nations and the United States to learn more about Bulgaria beyond the clichés of corruption, poverty and ties to Russia. A 2017 survey by the European Council of Foreign Relations shows that Bulgaria is “the least sought-after partner, and the least responsive to inquiries about common positions from other member states.”

Second, the Brussels bureaucratic machine should follow Jean-Claude Juncker’s lead by respecting and advocating for Bulgaria’s strategic priorities. Sofia should be allowed to join the Schengen space and set on a pathway to adopting the euro. These will provide the impetus for Sofia to introduce reforms capable of boosting transparency and combating corruption, vital steps in attracting investments and pursuing energy independence.

Finally, Brussels and Washington should not automatically see Bulgaria’s close historical and cultural ties with Russia as existential threats to the EU and NATO. In light of the Kremlin’s anti-democratic rhetoric and collapsing economy, that Soviet-era nostalgia soon could wear off. Unlike western democracies, Moscow’s attractiveness as a model to follow and emulate is limited.

For the time being, the European Commission seems to be somewhat aware of the need to support Sofia. Juncker recently promised the country it could “count on us because your place is in Europe. And your place is in Schengen. And your place is in the euro. We will work for that.”

The EC now has six months to live up to its words.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Moscow. He is a consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia with private entities, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council states and former Soviet territories.