Asked “If there is a referendum today, what would you choose: EU membership for Bulgaria or membership in Russia’s Eurasian Union?” 22% of respondents in Bulgaria said they said would vote for Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical project, according to a new poll. Conversely, 40% say they are for EU membership.
The opinion poll carried out by Alpha Research by end-April also reveals that the strongest supporters to Bulgaria’s rapprochement with Russia are supporters of the nationalist party Ataka (38%), the Bulgarian Socialist Party (34%) and ABV, a new left-leaning political force created by the former president Georgi Parvanov (34%).
Ataka leader Volen Siderov, well-known for his anti-Turkish and anti-Roma rhetoric, now campaigns on a pro-Kremlin ticket.
But even voters from the right of the political spectrum have sympathies for Putin’s project. 15% of the electorate of the centre-right Reformist Block, which is broadly seen as pro-Western, also support membership in the Eurasian Union, according to the same poll.
Emergence of a coherent anti-European block
“Let there be no illusions - in Bulgaria, it is not just about pro-Russian attitudes, or love for Russian culture, nature and language, but about the emergence of a coherent anti-European political block that has all the prerequisites to develop and strengthen in the coming years,” said Boryana Dimitrova of Alpha Research.
Bulgarians are broadly pro-European, largely because they trust EU institutions more than those of their own country. The latest Eurobarometer poll shows that Bulgaria is among the countries that is the most positive about the future of the EU, at 61%, with 27% pessimistic. The EU average is 53% optimist, versus 40% pessimist.
But many Bulgarians also nourish sympathies for Russia. The Russian empire fought the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 which liberated Bulgaria from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Many Bulgarians speak or understand Russian. The study of the Russian language was obligatory until 1990.
Russian propaganda appears to resonate very strongly in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarian media openly support the positions of Putin in the Ukrainian crisis, and many Bulgarians side with Russia in the stand-off. In televised debates ahead of the European elections, pro-Putin politicians get a high profile, while pro-European speakers appear on the defensive.
The Bulgarian socialists have recently adopted a resolution against further sanctions on Moscow in the context of the Ukraine crisis. The declaration says that Bulgaria should "not align with anyone’s position”, which appears as a political distancing from the EU and NATO allies. Sergei Stanishev, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist party, is also President of the Party of European Socialists.
Russian companies are a major investor in Bulgaria, much larger than statistics would show, because a lot of Russian capital flows into the country from offshore havens. The Russian company Lukoil owns the country’s only refinery, which is designed to exclusively process Russian crude. Gazprom plans to start building the South Stream gas pipeline across Bulgarian territory, starting next month. Other energy projects, including a Russian nuclear power plant at the Danube town of Belene, are under discussion.
In addition, many Russians buy real estate in Bulgaria, where they feel as at home. Russians love to repeat the saying: “The hen is not a bird and Bulgaria is not a foreign country.”
Bulgaria’s sometimes tense relations with the EU also serve a pro-Russian agenda. The Socialist-led government is on a collision course with the European Commission, both on the issue of South Stream, and over its effort to rescind the licenses of the three public suppliers of electricity in Bulgaria - the Czech firms ČEZ, Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN [read more]. Bulgaria’s power distribution market is divided into three regions, controlled by those three firms. Most Bulgarians are convinced that they have been given an unfair advantage.
Trojan horse… or donkey?
Back in 2006, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov famously told the correspondent of Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner publication in Bulgaria, that “Bulgaria is the Trojan horse of Russia in the EU”. This expression has since become emblematic. A commentator famously remarked that in fact, Bulgaria was not a Trojan horse, but a donkey, suggesting that Germany's pro-Russian policy under its present coalition government better qualified it for the role of horse.
Centre-right politicians and experts slam the current Socialist-led government for surrendering the country’s sovereignty to Moscow. A round table held on 12 May has proposed that Bulgaria surrenders its energy management to a Western-led “energy board”, similar to the currency board that has ensured stability of the national currency since 1997, after the country had gone bankrupt.
The main opposition force, the centre-right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, is preparing to introduce a motion of no-confidence in the cabinet over the issue of its energy policy.
But even GERB politicians hesitate to speak against South Stream, as a vast majority of Bulgarians approve the project, even though credible information is lacking on its benefits. In fact, Borissov too has helped move forward the South Stream project during his term [read more] and many in Bulgaria assume that whoever is in power, Russia will always prevail.