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Bulgaria Between The Crises (1): Sanctions Against Russia

[In today’s article, guest contributor Felix Troeltzsch takes a look at the sometimes overlooked country of Bulgaria and showcases the background and reasoning behind the special role it has played in the current Ukrainian Crisis.]

When you fly into Sofia by plane, you will find the city encircled by a multitude of mountain ranges. Having the Balkan range situated in the north and the Vitosha and Rila mountains in the south, your entire stay in Bulgaria’s capital will be shaped by a feeling of diminutiveness, originating from these massive and steady formations. Similarly, Bulgaria as a whole is located – geographically and culturally – between three major spheres of influence. There is the economically strong European Union in the west, the purportedly old ally Russia in the north-east and the crisis-ridden Middle-East in the south-east. Between these big geopolitical regions Bulgaria, a country of a little more than seven million inhabitants, seems almost as minuscule in the geopolitical environment as a person in the middle of Sofia’s mountain ranges. However, due to the evolving conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine in the recent months and years, the Balkan country developed into a key player in dealing with the effects of these crises and therefore gained diplomatic influence within the European Union. This first report will focus on the following two questions: (1) how has Bulgaria been dealing with the conflict in Ukraine and (2) why has it been acting so different from most other eastern European countries.

Bulgaria Opposes Strong Sanctions against Russia

After Russia started its push towards the annexation of Crimea in February and March 2014, the European Union debated about possible consequences almost immediately. After several acts of condemnation, the EU imposed its first travel bans and money freezes in late March. After a further escalation of the situation, due to the conjectural shooting down of the Malaysian Airline flight MH 17 and after Russian troops advanced into Ukrainian territory, the EU passed further sanctions that were targeted at Vladimir Putin’s direct entourage. Moreover, especially eastern-European countries, like Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania demanded an expanding military presence of US and NATO troops in their region. In contrast to these developments, the Bulgarian government did not push sanctions or demand military armament (EurActive 2014): it even slowed the whole EU decision-making process down[1]. As the only eastern-European country it opposed stronger phase-two sanctions in March and as one of two eastern-European countries (with Slovenia) it opposed the introduction of phase-three sanctions against Russia in July. Although phase-two and phase-three sanctions came into effect eventually, Bulgaria has been supporting a salient pro-Russian course in the group of eastern-European countries during the whole Ukraine crisis. This surprising circumstance can be explained by looking closer at the history and politics of the small Balkan country.

Bulgarian Dependence on Russian Oil and Gas

Firstly, although Bulgaria’s biggest trading partner is the EU, it depends hugely on Russia regarding its oil and gas supplies. Bulgaria obtains about 90 % of its energy resources from Russian state companies like LUKOIL or Gazprom (Lopez 2014). It would be catastrophic for the Balkan country, if Russia decided to stop its deliveries as a reaction to European sanctions. Therefore, the Bulgarian government has been stating during the entire Ukraine crisis that it opposes strong economical sanctions, since the Russian reactions would most probably hit Bulgaria the hardest.  In January 2009, for example, when Russia restricted its gas deliveries and Ukraine needed most of the remaining gas for itself, people in whole south-east Europe were affected directly. In Bulgaria, many houses stayed without energy and people froze to death (EU Commission 2009). Up to today there are no real alternatives to the energy supplies from Russia. With the new pipeline “South Stream” Bulgaria – along with many other south-east European countries – even substantiated its commitment to Russian gas. Whereas the building of “South Stream” in Bulgaria was temporarily stopped in August 2014 by the EU Commission, the Bulgarian government is determined to continue the construction of the pipeline soon to become independent of Ukraine as transit country. All of these findings suggest that Bulgarian officials are not interested in becoming independent from Russian oil and gas. On the contrary, they seem to have tightened the energy relations in the last years. Apparently, a country with such a strong present dependence on Russian oil and gas and future plans of a direct pipeline through the Black Sea must be concerned to offend its most important energy provider. For this reason, the extension of EU sanctions or even the risk of a military conflict can not be in the national interest of Bulgaria.

At this point, some might rightfully point out that other countries like Lithuania (92 % oil, 100 % gas from Russia) or Poland (91 % oil, 60 % gas from Russia)  depend even more on Russian energy exports and still pushed for stronger sanctions in the EU. Since this is absolutely correct, there must be more reasons for Bulgaria’s rather calm standpoint towards Russia.

Bulgaria’s History in the Region

Secondly, in the collective memory of Bulgaria’s people, Russia is still largely understood as the historical liberator of the country and is therefore rather a subject of gratitude than aversion. During its history the Balkan country experienced many different types of foreign rulers. Much like today, medieval Bulgaria was situated next to influential and expanding empires. After the glorious time of the First Bulgarian State, which stretched further than today’s boarders, the country was foreign ruled for several hundred years. From the year 1018 until 1185 it was a part of the Byzantine empire and experienced its first “lost period” (Dimitrov 2001: 2). After a strong strive for freedom and a Bulgarian nation-state from 1185 until 1396, the Ottoman Turks conquered the country and established a bloody rule for almost 500 years. During this time, the Bulgarian territory served mainly as source for agriculture and was ruled merciless by local lords. Moreover, the ethnic composition was changed drastically and the ethnic Bulgarian population declined, until it reached a low point in the late 15th century. In other words, the Turkish rulers forced the traditionally Christian-orthodox state to sacrifice its European history and transform into an Ottoman-like country. It was the Russo-Turkish War from 1877 to 1878 that finally liberated Bulgaria and helped to establish the independent nation-state that we know today. Until today, the conquest of Bulgaria by the Turks, the fall of the nation-state and the forced destruction of central European values is “almost universally regarded by the Bulgarians as the most tragic point in their history” (Dimitrov 2001: 2-4). One can come across this mostly exaggerated notion of the brutal “Ottoman Yoke” in many everyday situations – read about it in newspapers, hear it during conversations, or watch references on TV. As a result of this collective memory, Russia is still commonly considered as historical liberator of Bulgaria[2]. Due to this positive image of the world power in the north-east, it is not politically worthwhile for any Bulgarian party to promote a radical anti-Russian agenda. Therefore, only a few political parties in Bulgaria are promoting a radical anti-Russian agenda and demand stronger sanctions.

Bulgaria’s Political and Economical Elite

Lastly, Bulgaria’s political and economical decision-makers have been maintaining very close ties with former and present Russian elites. In contrast to many other eastern-European countries, Bulgaria’s society never really processed its past as a totalitarian system and reappraised its Cold War history. This means that unlike Germany or Poland, civil servants and politicians were never extensively controlled for their past. After 1990 the former political class basically remained in power. Bulgaria’s socialist party BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) which is the second largest fraction in parliament and a former[3] part of the government, must be seen as the direct successor of the ruling socialists during the Cold War. Hence, most socialist politicians maintain close relations to Russia. The same can be said about its former coalition partner DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) of the Turkish minority in the country. These two parties are commonly known not only to have a close relationship to Putin, but also to promote a Russian-friendly agenda in Bulgaria (Spiegel 2014). Moreover, also the ultra-nationalist and xenophobic party ATAKA (Attack) and its leader Volen Siderov is known for its anti-European and extremely pro-Russian attitudes. During the last year ATAKA supported the Bulgarian government with votes in parliament and ensured its majority. Siderov, who also rails against Roma and Turks, supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea openly and tried to discredit the Ukrainian government constantly. He as well acts within Vladimir Putin’s closest environment and ATAKA is believed to be financed by Russia to a large extent (Hassel 2014). Only Bulgaria’s president Rosen Plevneliev and GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), the party of the former prime minister (2009-2013) Boyko Borrisov,  are known for its rather Euro-friendly agenda. Plevneliev, who is independent, but sympathizes with GERB, has criticized Russia after the annexation of Crimea and for its engagement in eastern Ukraine.

Nevertheless, even GERB has not yet dared to turn on Russia openly. Aside from that, Bulgaria’s economy is widely controlled by oligarchic structures. Many economical branches, like the financial-, construction-, or media industry are involved in this. A few people own large antitrust companies that often spread through many different sectors. These oligarchs have, most of the time, very close connections to leading politicians in Bulgaria and Russia. Two of the most recent examples for this are Deljan Peevski and Tzwetan Wassilew, whose struggles for power in Bulgaria were referred to as “The Bulgarian Game of Thrones” by Forbes magazine (Coppola 2014). Peevski, a media tycoon, and Wassilew, who is mostly active in the construction and finance sector, are involved in intensive businesses with Russia. Moreover, Peevski, whose appointment as head of Bulgaria’s National Security Agency (DANS) led to nationwide protests in 2013, and Wassilew were both suspected of corruption and the granting of illegal benefits a couple of times, also in connection to high politicians and other Bulgarian decision makers (Coppola 2014; The Economist 2014). Having this in mind, it becomes clear that neither most leading Bulgarian politicians, who are known to have close political ties with Russia and Putin, nor Bulgaria’s economical elite, who maintains a strong influence within the Bulgarian governing bodies and whose businesses depend on Russian partners and the connection to the Kremlin, have any interest in stronger sanctions against Russia whatsoever.

Added together, these factors show why Bulgaria reacted differently on the Ukraine conflict than most eastern-European countries. It has been trying to halt determined sanctions and prevent military threats against Russia, rather than demanding them. This is due to its severe dependence on Russian oil and gas, the positive perception of Russia in Bulgaria’s collective memory and the close ties between Bulgaria’s political and economical elite with Russia. This brief analysis shows, once again, how heterogeneous the European Union still is. The next part of the series will focus on Bulgaria’s decisive role in the Syria conflict and how it deals with the resulting challenges.

Author Biography: 

Felix Troeltzsch recently graduated from the University of Jena with a master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Peace Studies. Before that, he studied International Relations and American Studies at the University of Leipzig and University of Warsaw. Felix is mainly interested in international conflicts, security policy, human rights, the European Union and the Middle East. During several stays abroad he has dealt intensively with the Balkans and the Black Sea region.


Coppola, Frances. 2014. The Bulgarian Game of Thrones. In: (09/14/2014).

Dimitrov, Vesselin. 2001. Bulgaria: The Uneven Transition. New York: Routledge. 2014. Bulgaria opposes immediate EU sanctions on Russia. In:  (09/12/2014).

European Commission. 2009. The January 2009 Gas Supply Disruption to the EU: An Assessment.           In: (09/12/2014).

Giumelli, Francesco. 2013. How EU Sanctions Work: A Narrative. In: Challiot Paper 129 (May).

Hassel, Florian. 2014. Putins Rechte Freunde. In:   1.1938496 (13/09/2014).

Lopez, German. 2014. […] Europe’s Dependence on Russian Gas. In: (09/12/2014).

Spiegel. 2014. Brückenkopf in die EU: Bundesregierung fürchtet Russlands Einfluss in Bulgarien. In: einfluss-a-968785.html (09/13/2014).

[1]              On the EU decision-making process for sanctions see Giumelli 2013.

[2]              Naturally, not every Bulgarian will share this view on Russia. However, a majority of the literature suggests that the historical liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 still has a big impact people’s opinion about the world power in the north-east.

[3]              The Bulgarian government resigned on July 23, 2014. Till the next elections in October 2014 an interim government is in power.

Picture Credit: Stella VM


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