Bulgaria’s recent parliamentary election was widely declared a victory for EU interests by the western media, but a closer look at the complicated web of Kremlin influence and “pro-Russia” and “pro-EU” loyalties in Bulgaria reveals a far more complex picture, argues Michael Colborne.
Bulgaria got caught in the western media crosshairs for a few days last month.
It all started with a Wall Street Journal article just four days before Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections at the end of March. The author of the piece in question alleged that the pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) got a “secret strategy document” that recommended they “plant fake news and promote exaggerated polling data.” The alleged document came from the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISI) – the same overhyped Russian think tank that made headlines last week for apparently producing similar strategy documents in advance of the US presidential election.
This led to a few short days of western worry. Could the pro-Kremlin BSP eke out a parliamentary win and “tilt [Bulgaria] towards Russia?” Could it repeat what it did in last fall’s presidential election, when the BSP’s Rumen Radev ousted GERB’s candidate for the largely ceremonial head of state role?
Well, no. Borisov’s GERB comfortably beat Kornelia Ninova’s BSP by more than five percentage points and the resulting press coverage from Europe and beyond read like a collective sigh of relief. The “pro-EU” forces won, said the Guardian, while the New York Times said the result “appeared to be a disappointment” for the Kremlin. The European Council and Foreign Relations (ECFR), in a piece on the foreign policy implications of the elections, even argued “the EU [had] dodged a bullet” with Borisov’s victory.
But a closer look at the complicated web of Kremlin influence and “pro-Russia” and “pro-EU” loyalties in Bulgaria, makes it pretty clear the EU has far from dodged anything with Borisov’s victory.
“We have four and a half pro-Russian parties in Bulgaria,” says Martin Vladimirov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, of the five parties that made it into the Bulgarian parliament last month.
Borisov’s victory doesn’t change the fact that most Bulgarian MPs, to varying degrees, lean closer to the Kremlin line on everything from (removing) sanctions on Russia to energy policy. Aside from the BSP and pro-Kremlin members of Borisov’s own party, these include members of two of the three parties that make up the United Patriots coalition (the far-right Ataka and the nationalist VMRO-BND), the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the Volya party led by the Trump-like Veselin Mareshki.
Even with Borisov’s victory, some of these pro-Kremlin forces will be in Bulgaria’s new government, and in cabinet. Borisov is currently negotiating a coalition agreement with the United Patriots and the openly pro-Kremlin leader of VMRO-BND, a former Communist-era state security agent Krasimir Karakachanov, who is apparently under consideration for defence minister. Having a pro-Kremlin defence minister in an EU country would be a “major victory” for the Kremlin, says Vladimirov.
It’s not accurate to paint Borisov as “pro-EU,” Vladimirov adds. When Borisov was just getting his start in politics in 2006, US Ambassador John Beyrle wrote in a leaked diplomatic cable that Borisov had “been implicated in serious criminal activity and maintains close ties to Lukoil and the Russian embassy.” According to Vladimirov, Borisov and others in Bulgaria maintain a balancing act between the EU and Russia, and try to maintain good relations with both to leverage their positions and maximize support, investment and funding from both. Many observers have noted that the ruling Progressive Party (SNS) in neighboring Serbia employs a similar strategy.
But it’s in energy where the Kremlin’s hand is strongest in Bulgaria, regardless of who’s in power in Sofia.
“Bulgaria is entirely dependent on gas from Russia,” says Boriana Dimitrova, a managing partner at Alpha Research, a market and social research firm in Sofia.
Huge Russian energy players have a “quasi-monopoly” on Bulgaria’s energy industry, says Dimitrova. Russian energy giant Gazprom is Bulgaria’s only natural gas provider and owns half of the country’s biggest retail gas distribution company, while oil giant Lukoil controls Bulgaria’s only oil refinery and half of its wholesale fuel market.
This energy domination gives the Kremlin all the tools it needs to turn the screws on Bulgaria when it feels its interests are threatened, says Dimitrova. With few of its own natural resources or big industries, Dimitrova stresses, it’s also easy for Russian interests to control the country’s political and economic elite – not to mention the media, where a handful of powerful oligarchs like Delyan Peevski dominate.
Peevski is an MP of the Turkish minority party DPS and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. According to Reporters without Border (RSF), he owns or controls most newspapers in Bulgaria as well as two of the most popular news websites in Bulgaria, blitz.bg and pik.bg – websites that, according to Martin Vladimirov, tend to produce pro-Kremlin content and give “disproportionate attention” to statements from the BSP and United Patriots.
Peevski’s also given disproportionate attention to Russian interests in Bulgaria. Inside Bulgaria’s parliament, Peevski pushed for Kremlin-supported projects like the (now cancelled) South Stream pipeline, where he was rumoured to have had ties (which he denied) to the Bulgarian companies that would have benefited from the pipeline project, as well as links to the Russian business partners who would have been part of the project. It’s also been noted that he built his media empire with the help of loans from Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), a now-defunct institution that was partly owned by Russia’s VTB – and forced to close in 2014 thanks to a bank run caused by massive withdrawals by Peevski himself.
With oligarchs like Peevski controlling Bulgarian media it’s no surprise that international observers from the OSCE criticized domestic media coverage of the elections, noting “a lack of political investigative and analytical reporting [that] significantly limited the information available to voters.” It’s also no surprise that Bulgaria is now ranked 113th in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, the lowest-ranked EU country, ranked lower than countries like Liberia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. And the election of Borisov, a man who’s no friend to free media, isn’t likely to improve this score.
It seems to be the in-thing now for western commentators to read election results like tealeaves to tell them if they should start or stop worrying about this or that country’s slide towards the Kremlin. Sure, if the EU and others are worried about Kremlin influence in Bulgaria and beyond they’re right to feel a bit relieved by a Borisov win – but if it means they stop paying attention to competing pro-EU and pro-Kremlin influence in Bulgaria it would be a big mistake.
Cover photo: Tsar Liberator statue. Credit: Michael Colborne.