Beware of Russians bearing gifts

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Bulgaria-Russia relationship (symbolised by Boyko Borissov's gifting of a Bulgarian Shepherd dog to Vladimir Putin in 2010) is a prime example of Moscow's meddling in Europe. [Jedimentat44/Flickr]

Once labelled “Russia’s would-be Trojan horse in the EU”, Bulgaria’s political, social and economic attitudes towards Moscow reveal how Russian foreign policy undermines European solidarity. Tomasz Poręba discusses Russian interference in European affairs using the Bulgarian example.

Tomasz Poręba (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) is a Polish MEP (ECR group) and the president of New Direction, the Foundation for European Reform.

It is time that we properly understand Russian activities in Bulgaria, especially in light of the recent developments in Ukraine, Syria and a number of Eastern European countries. Using its old ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics, Russia is challenging unity among EU member states by taking advantage of a number of different factors, including economic links or support for political parties which have especially strong ties with Moscow (such as Ataka in Bulgaria).

It is time we look closer at Putin’s game – a big part of which is a conflict in the east of Ukraine – and react before it is too late.

If the Ukrainian conflict has taught us anything, it is that Russia has recently diverted much of its resources and focus from mobilising hard power to protect its interests to increasing its soft power, including funding media outlets and political parties. This shift can be seen very clearly in Bulgaria, which is suffering from Moscow’s harmful interference.

In November 2006, Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s ambassador to the EU, famously called Bulgaria “Russia’s would-be Trojan horse in the EU”. Although Bulgaria has long been regarded as the European country most vulnerable to Russian influence, there is no place for a passive reaction from the European side.

The Bulgarian example precisely reveals this new aspect of the Russian influence across the EU. It describes in detail the ongoing game played by the Russian regime and neatly sums up the contemporary Russian policy towards its former near abroad and its attempts to undermine European unity.

Using gas exports as a political weapon in Bulgaria, Russia has succeeded in undermining European solidarity, by creating political and economic rifts. As a result, the Kremlin (and Gazprom) benefit from these divisions and retain the status of main supplier, while using Bulgaria to promote the revival of the aborted South Stream project. With ongoing talks about the second pipeline of North Stream, we cannot neglect previous experiences that we faced with Russia.

However, energy is only one of many ways in which Russia interferes in Bulgarian domestic political and economic life. It has increased its role in the Bulgarian banking system and real-estate market, with the recent purchase of almost 64,000 houses by Russian citizens in Varna and Burgas. With regard to information or propaganda, Russia exerts a firm influence by generously funding Bulgarian media both at local and national level. Through a variety of means and channels, Russia is able to broadcast its version of events throughout Bulgaria.

In the area of the army and defence industry, Russian influence can also be keenly felt. While Bulgaria continues to rely on soviet-era military equipment, NATO has unsuccessfully tried to modernise its army and increase its interoperability with the alliance.

One could argue that one of the main pillars of the common market is the opportunity to invest abroad, which usually has nothing to do with geo-politics. But the Bulgarian case proves otherwise. For instance, when talking about Western sanctions against Russia, the Bulgaria’s reluctance can be explained by its tight economic links with Russia and the pro-Kremlin Ataka party. When some Bulgarian politicians started a debate on defence and security, which has shown the true extent of Russian interference in Bulgaria, the pro-Kremlin parties caused a political crisis.

The Bulgarian example should be used by policy advisers and politicians to help them better understand Moscow’s way of acting and to reshape our policy towards Russia. It is important to be aware that before being able to compete in the external dimension, we must first gain control of our internal situation.

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