An old urban legend has it that the last king of Bulgaria, Boris III, told Nazi Germany's foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop that "Bulgaria is always with Germany and never against Russia" when the latter asked Sofia to join the war against Soviet Russia in 1942. Regardless of whether the quote is authentic, which it probably is not, it explains quite well Bulgaria's attempts to balance between West (be it Germany, the EU or the US) and the "Big Brother" to the East, be it in the shape of Putin's Russia, the USSR or the Tsarist empire.
Another proof of this persistent leitmotif of many Bulgarian governments came at the end of November when Prime Minister Boyko Borissov flew to Washington, DC, to meet US President Donald Trump. Despite the better part of the key Bulgarian ministers joining the work visit, including Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, deputy PM Tomislav Donchev, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov and Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov, their trip to the US did not yield much in terms of concrete agreements between the two states.
Instead, it outlined the general pattern of Bulgarian-American relations in coming years, which will move from democracy promotion and anti-corruption into the fields of energy and security, as the two official documents after the meeting between Mr Borissov and Mr Trump outlined. Both the Joint Statement of the two leaders and the Strategic Partnership Framework points out that upgrading Bulgaria's military and further integrating it within NATO, as well as improving energy security through increased interconnectedness and liberalization of the energy market, would form the crux of bilateral relations.
What is more interesting, however, is the discrepancy between what these joint documents stated and what Mr Borissov personally said about the discussion he had with Mr Trump, which highlighted the drive of the Bulgarian administration to pamper to US interests, but never at the expense of the country's links to Moscow.
A tale of two energy visions
"The United States and Bulgaria understand that energy security is national security. We underline our common understanding that the diversification of energy sources is a guarantee of energy security, independence, and competitiveness for our economies," the Joint Statement remarked. It pointed out that the two states will cooperate on increasing the supply of gas from diverse and reliable sources and on diversifying the supply of nuclear fuel. It singled out two core initiatives of common priority - Bulgaria promised to hasten the process of licensing American nuclear fuel for the Kozloduy nuclear power plant (NPP) and "welcomed Bulgaria's aspirations to become a regional gas hub" by completing the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria. Other positive developments in this direction mentioned by the document were Sofia's plans to buy a stake in Greece's Alexandroupolis liquid natural gas terminal, to liberalize its domestic gas market, expanding gas storage capacity and access.
So how did the energy side of the question look from PM Borissov's point of view?
"Everybody thought that we come here to be told "No, no, no, no", and what happened is the complete opposite," he told Bulgarian reporters after the meeting with Mr Trump, referring to expectations that Washington would oppose the two resurrected mastodon energy projects that favor Moscow the most - Belene nuclear power plant and the TurkStream gas pipeline diversion across Bulgaria. In Mr Borissov's own words, he spent 15 minutes out of the entire 50 minutes-long conversation with the US President defending the feasibility of the second NPP in Bulgaria, underlining that US companies and engineers have been invited to participate in its construction. "Donald Trump is a businessman and understood that this is a very good project," Mr Borissov said and claimed that the US President not only did not oppose TurkStream, but said that the Bulgarian Prime Minister was "absolutely right" to want to buy Russian gas if he wants to make the country an energy hub.
In short, the two core energy topics that Mr Borissov claimed to have discussed with Mr Trump were completely absent from the joint documents the two countries signed and, by coincidence, were precisely the two projects that benefit Russia the most.
A base or no base
A similar divergence appears if one looks at Mr Borissov's comments on security matters before and after the meeting in the White House, and compare it to the vision described in the Strategic Partnership Framework.
"Both countries share a desire to pursue additional cooperation, bilaterally and through NATO, to bolster Bulgaria's maritime operations capabilities and thereby bolster our collective security along NATO's southeastern flank," the document stated. It added that because of the concerning security situation in the Black Sea region, the US has "welcomed Bulgaria's offer to provide a maritime coordination function in Varna in support of NATO's Tailored Forward Presence initiative."
And what did Mr Borissov say to Bulgarian media on the topic? "A Black Sea NATO base on Bulgarian territory is something I will not allow," he said while he was leaving for the US on 25 November. He also barely touched upon the topic when talking to Bulgarian reporters after the meeting. Why? Because of his desire not to enrage Moscow and pro-Russian sympathizers in the country.
While the potential establishment of a maritime coordination center in the port city of Varna looks probable, we are unlikely to hear the otherwise far from shy Bulgarian PM bragging about it. The center would likely not be designated as a "US base," for risk of scandalizing many anti-Euroatlanticists and generating flak against the government, but as a "joint facility" of the Bulgarian and US armies, just as the existing Novo Selo shooting range and the Graf Ignatievo and Bezmer military airfields. This would allow Mr Borissov to maintain that he is sticking to his vision of the Black Sea as a site for "yachts and tourist ships, peace and love, and not military frigates," as he said in 2016 when he personally blocked the creation of a joint NATO Black Sea fleet.
Rule of law hits rock bottom
Unfortunately, questions such as media freedom, good governance, anti-corruption and the maintenance of rule of law standards, which have so far been in the apex of US official policy towards Bulgaria, were brushed aside by Mr Trump's administration. Nobody asked the two leaders about these aspects of the bilateral relationship and the two documents they signed only made a passing reference to them. Not that former US presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama's attempt to prioritize these issues did a great deal to improve the Bulgarian political environment - but at least they gave hope to the small Bulgarian civil society that the new "Big Brother" from the West might help with the democratization of the country.
Of course, it is likely that criticism and on-the-ground efforts by the new US ambassador to Sofia, Hero Mustafa, will somewhat compensate for that. In her first interviews after taking on the post she underlined that the US will not issue visas for corrupt officials (which is not a new policy), but priorities of the US administration as a whole lie elsewhere.
It will take time to see if the conflicting moments of Mr Borissov's balancing act between Moscow and Washington and the strategic place of Sofia in Washington's calculations will blow up in the face of the Bulgarian PM, as happened with the government of Plamen Oresharski. Or, alternatively, Mr Borissov's much slyer approach could pay off and he will continue having the "best" of both worlds, at the expense of Bulgarian taxpayers and some of their basic freedoms.