At the end of May, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev finally had his long awaited meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Radev could hardly have been happy with the results though. Putin's poker face and his failure to recognize the origins of the Cyrillic alphabet (i.e. to say it was invented in medieval Bulgaria) sum up the results of the grand visit that had nevertheless been pompously presented as a breakthrough in Bulgaria-Russia relations.
A week later the same befell to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. While he was announcing Bulgaria's ascension to becoming a center of Russian gas transit to Europe, the Russian president said that there have been discussions, true, yet Sofia would still have to guarantee Gazprom's free access to Bulgaria's infrastructure and EU's non- interference. This is not a new scenario, however. At the end Putin went so far as to caustically remark that Mr. Borissov had expressed his regrets for Bulgaria impeding the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline back in 2013 only to get some financial concessions from the Russians. Again, hardly the breakthrough the Bulgarian government had expected.
What kind of a breakthrough though? The problem of Bulgaria-Russia relations is that Bulgaria does not know what it wants from Russia in the first place. Bulgaria's foreign policy can't be reduced to the visits of the president and the prime minister abroad; it is a complex mix of the positions of the leading parties, media discourse, public opinion and Bulgaria's positions in the EU in regard to Russia. An analysis of these four major factors would demonstrate that there is no clear-cut, coherent agenda formulated in terms of national interest. The medley of the various positions in Bulgaria can be interpreted in at least four different ways:
1. We want Russia to liberate us from European yoke
Even President Radev, who was the candidate of opposition Socialist Pary in the 2016 presidential election and is seen as friendly to Russia, would avow that this is not the goal of Bulgarian politics, and Prime Minister Borissov would agree with him. How could you possibly suggest such a thing?! Well, quite easily, if one listens to leading Bulgarian politicians and Socialist leader Korneliya Ninova in particular. For Ms Ninova, democracy and EU membership have deprived Bulgaria of an awful lot of things; the EU is cheating us with their double standards, and corrupting us with their Istanbul Convention that "implants gender ideology under the guise" of preventing violence against women. A wretched situation indeed, desperately calling for liberation.
Add some key players in the governing coalition like nationalist VMRO party, and pro-Russian Ataka in particular, and there is a curious paradox: officially Bulgaria is in the EU and NATO, yet - officially again - Bulgaria is "bleeding" inside, longing to be liberated. The party behind the president, and the prime minister's coalition partners are not averse to such "liberation" and are indeed constantly generating public support for it. Our EU-inflicted angst and misery have become a favorite topic with the media, the discourse being led by the pro-government tabloid press. Now, what would an impartial onlooker think of such a situation?
2. Bulgaria wants to act as a bridge between EU and Russia
The "bridge" thesis is a milder version of the "liberation" one. The idea is that while Bulgaria is part of the EU, it has its own, separate policy towards Russia. This was the approach the government adopted during the Scripal crisis (the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer in UK). Mr. Borissov's coalition partners - Ataka in particular - follow the same line regarding the Ukraine and Crimea, quite openly expressing their support for the position of Moscow. President Radev is constantly talking about ending the EU sanctions against Russia, though he has toned down his position a bit.
The scenario of Bulgaria de facto leaving NATO is a part of the "bridge" agenda launched by Ataka, a junior partner of Mr. Borissov's GERB party in the government coalition. And Vesselin Mareshki, leader of populist Volya party which is not part of the coalition, is even planning a referendum on the issue.
To top it all, after a decade in NATO and the EU Bulgaria still heavily depends on Russian-made weapons and is putting off the modernization of its army.
It is true Bulgaria is not the only EU country seeking to establish exclusive political ties with Russia. But besides neutral Austria, which is not a NATO member anyway, only Greece (and Cyprus), and the current Italian government coalition of extreme right and populist parties have a position similar to the Bulgarian one.
3. Bulgaria is counting on economic cooperation with Russia
That hypothesis is getting ever more popular. Ms Merkel wants the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to Germany, Bulgaria wants to have its own pipeline for transiting Russian gas to Europe and to revive its Russian-designed Belene nuclear power plant project. Politics should not be confused with business.
There are two potential issues here. On one hand, the economic soundness of the projects - Belene in particular - is highly debatable. The government itself is not convinced of it, and is therefore reluctant to offer any financial commitment. Soaring at 20% of Bulgaria's gross national product, those are high-scale projects that would burden the country's public finances for decades. The project consultants have earned hundreds of millions of euro already but benefit to the public would be minimal, negative even.
At the same time these huge projects would allow Russia to influence Bulgarian politics for decades to come. The very raison d'être of having a Russian gas pipeline across the Black Sea has been geopolitical from the start, i.e. skirting Ukraine rather than increasing gas transit to Europe through its territory. For Russia it is also important to have Russian technology-based nuclear power plants in the EU. If that is the case indeed, Bulgaria's position is opportunistic, seeking to gain from Russian geopolitics.
For the sake of the argument, let's assume these projects will be profitable in economic terms. There would have been a strong impetus for their implementation on both sides, and that interest would not have been related to politics in any way. Then why did President Radev have to visit Russia, repent, criticize his predecessor and hint that politically Bulgaria will support Russia or at least keep quiet on issues like Crimea and Skripal? Did Ms Merkel, for instance, alter her political stance on Ukraine, Syria, Skripal, etc. in order to consider economic cooperation with Russia?
And here comes a major difference between Bulgarian and German politics. The Bulgarians are being persuaded that in order to have profitable economic relations with Russia Bulgaria must lean upon being close historically, culturally or politically. No business can be done without that closeness, i.e. if the Russians do not "recognize" the Bulgarian origin of the Cyrillic alphabet, this is a sign that there will be no gas. This is the logic behind Mr. Radev's attempt to "break the ice", culturally and politically, for Mr. Borissov to follow suit with the economic packages.
The German example clearly demonstrates the naiveté behind such misconceptions. In the 1960s Bulgaria nearly became the sixteenth Soviet republic. 'Cunning' Todor Zhivkov (the then Communist ruler of Bulgaria) reasoning was that the USSR would cover Bulgaria's debts in return for Bulgaria's (then nominal) independence and the purported brotherhood of Slavic nations. Quite a few of Bulgaria's modern politicians think along the same line of exchanging political and cultural closeness with Russia for economic gains. However, they will receive little more than the Russian ridicule, contempt even.
4. Russian vanguard in the EU
Reading between the lines of both Mr. Borissov and Mr. Radev's statements one can infer that Bulgaria is using its membership in the EU in order to establish more advantageous relations with Russia and to become something of an EU emissary in Moscow.
The hypothesis does have a grain of political logic. In reality the exact opposite is true, however.
Russia would perhaps agree to concessions if Sofia could change some of the Brussels policies, that thinking goes. This was the case with South Stream. Bulgaria gave in to Gazprom pressure and decided not to follow EU's energy legislation. As a result, at the end of 2012 the country received lower gas prices.
However, the real change came in not by Moscow giving favors. Following European Commission's seven-year investigation against Gazprom, the Russian company was forced to give up some of its monopolistic practices. A strong European position gets better prices, should be the conclusion. It could be even stronger if Eastern Europe would be able to persuade Germany to relinquish its price advantages in trading with Gazprom and negotiate on behalf of its partners who don't have so privileged relations with the Russian gas monopoly.
Strangely enough, Bulgarian foreign policy completely ignores this potential. Quite the opposite - Sofia is pursuing exclusive contracts with Russia thus turning Bulgaria into a Russian vanguard in the EU.
The hybrid victim
All that ambiguity leads to the conclusion that Bulgarian politics is the victim of the hybrid war - Bulgaria's very position towards Russia is a hybrid product of various conflicting interpretations. True, Russian propaganda plays on and is manipulating Bulgarian politics for its own ends. Still, Bulgaria's uncertainty as to what exactly it wants from Russia is not a product of the Russian propaganda efforts.
Hence while Mr. Radev and Mr. Borissov considered themselves EU's emissaries to Russia, the Russian media quite easily labeled them beggars for Bulgaria's liberation from the EU. And the Russians can easily justify their interpretation with "facts" taken from Bulgarian political positions at the highest level.
In politics ambiguity might be constructive and useful. It allows for a leeway and plays upon the basic instinct to stay low until a conflict blows away, not take a position, play it safe. During a conflict though, you must stand behind your identity and position. Playing it safe may be often prudent, but it is never admirable.