3 June, 20:17

Bulgaria punished for ties with Russia

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev before a meeting with Central and Eastern European Leaders at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw June 3, 2014.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev before a meeting with Central and Eastern European Leaders at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw June 3, 2014.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev before a meeting with Central and Eastern European Leaders at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw June 3, 2014.

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Bulgaria is coming under fire from its EU and NATO allies for its friendly ties with Russia. Why would the US et al. suddenly awaken to a centuries-old reality? Is Bulgaria going to be subject to more pressure? If so, where could it take the country? Voice of Russia is discussing it with Daniel Smilov, Director, Political and Legal Research Programme, Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, Dr. Kiril Avramov, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the New Bulgarian University, and Peter Kichashki Board Member at Institute of Modern Politics, Sofia.

This Tuesday US President Barak Obama, visiting Poland, announced a $1 billion fund to help boost defensive capabilities of European allies. The fund is also aimed at increasing the US/NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. That same day the European Commission was reported to have formally launched infringement proceedings against Bulgaria over its choice of a contractor to build the land section of the South Stream pipeline in the country.

These have been preceded by an article in WSJ titled "Bulgaria's Western Allies Worry About Eastward Tilt" which said: "Bulgaria has been in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for a decade and the EU since 2007. Yet the Balkan nation, with its gold-domed Orthodox churches and communist-era architecture, still feels culturally and politically connected to Russia". So, what is it all about? Why are we talking about infringement procedure at this particular moment?

We are going for more details together with Daniel Smilov, Director of the Political and Legal Research Programme, Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria:

"There are two issues which are implicated in the case. First, this is the competition for the construction works. Our Government carried out a procurement procedure and appointed a consortium of companies which are supposed to carry out the construction works. But exactly the procedure is now under a review by the European Commission.

And the European Commission thinks that the Bulgarian Government violated the EU law in carrying out this procedure. This the first issue.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, there could be a conflict between the South Stream project as it is implemented now and the so-called Third Energy Package for the EU which has certain requirements about the competition. One of these requirements is that a variety of companies should have access to the pipelines and not only one supplier.

And this seems to be a rather controversial issue. The Russian authorities and the Russian companies prefer to preserve their monopoly over the pipelines and the Bulgarian Government has been trying to lobby in Brussels for a certain exemption from the EU law. They have even tried to circumvent the EU law by declaring that the South Stream is a project which is going under the sea, so it should be dealt with different types of regulation.

But apparently the European Commission is not convinced by these moves of the Bulgarian Government. So, this is the second issue which is at stake in the communication between the Bulgarian Government and Brussels.

Do you think that there are certain political dimensions in this case?

This background is important because the current Government, and especially the Socialist Party… you noted that the Government in Bulgaria now is rather weak, because it is dependent on a very complex coalition in the Parliament. The major party is the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has traditionally been pro-Russian.

And in the Ukrainian crisis its position has been rather ambiguous. So, on the official level it has said that, of course, it is fully with the EU, but it has been in the camp of countries which are either for kind of mild sanctions against Russia, or are even generally against the sanctions.

So, the Bulgarian Government hasn’t argued that unilaterally it is going to impose a veto or something like that, but it has definitely been trying to find partners, essentially, for two things – one is for the continuation of projects like that, especially the South Stream project, despite this crisis and, secondly, it has been trying to find partners to weaken or somehow dilute the package of sanctions against Russia.

So, probably, these attitudes, together with the various statements by the people close to the Government in the domestic context have raised the suspicions in Brussels about the loyalty of the Bulgarian Government to the common European interests. And there have been some harsh words on behalf of the EU officials. President Barroso has even said that he was fearing that there are Russian agents in Bulgaria, meaning in the political sphere.

How real are the chances that Bulgaria could come under more pressure from Brussels or Washington?

I think that the Commission is rather serious and that it is going to continue with the infringement procedure. So, if the Bulgarian Government doesn’t comply, I think that they are going to push for certain penalties and sanctions against Bulgaria".

Dr. Kiril Avramov, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the New Bulgarian University (NBU)

The thing is that Bulgaria is a member of the EU and also is a member of NATO, and also sort of represents the southeastern flank of this alliance. So, it is of course logical to look at the diverging positions of – let’s say – Poland and the hesitant position of the current Bulgarian Government, which is not enjoying a very high popularity and is not having such a wide support. And of course, that puts the Socialist Party, and at least half of its supporters are known to have very warm feelings for Russia, in a very uncomfortable position.

The current Government, although it has technically been coined as a government of experts, it is being held by a majority which is no less than dubious, because we are having the Socialist Party, we are having the Liberal Party (which is ethnically Turkish), and also we do have the nationalists from Ataka. This is a very strange and weird combination, at least for liberal-minded people. But it still maintains its hold on power, although quite shakily.

Now, having that in mind Bulgaria has gone to, just like every other European country, for the European election. And as it has been pointed out in this article, there was a recent poll among the Bulgarians conducted by Alpha Research, by my colleagues, asking Bulgarians which direction the country should head – whether it should be the EU, or it should be the Eurasian Union.

What we are clearly having, on the paper we do have something less than 2:1 majority of Bulgarians that do want to remain in the EU. And the elections have also very distinctly shown that all the parties that have been openly advocating closer ties with Russia, actually, did not manage to clear the threshold.

I should note that, at least from my point of view, this is very good news for the liberal consensus of Bulgaria. That means that those years have not been wasted in the sense that the Bulgarian society has and wants a clear direction and it is more for the European integration despite the hardships that it might cause.

In connection with the South Stream, Bulgaria is already under a procedure from Brussels. And basically, we have been shown quite a lot of yellow cards, showing that the team played not as it was expected from us or not with the team spirit that was expected from us, despite the fact that the population is clearly showing…I mean, the Socialists had a disastrous defeat in these elections. And as I mentioned before, the nationalists, which are well known to have ties with Russia, have been basically kicked out of the national politics.

So, we are right now in a very complicated situation, because we all know that there are traditional and cultural ties with Russia. And on the basic level people do have good feelings for Russia, not necessarily for the current regime, but in general for the Russians. However, we have a clearly established consensus and, as I said, it’s been repeatedly shown in the elections, that we are looking towards Brussels more than towards Moscow.

That spells even more problems for the current Government, which I don’t believe will last its full mandate. Regardless of the fact that they have kept strong, we lost and we have almost 300 days of protests on the streets against them. So, definitely this would imply that the team spirit has not been upheld by this political spectrum which is trying to simultaneously please Brussels and NATO, on the one side, and Putin and Russia, on the other side, and that seems not to be possible at this point of time given the situation that you have outside the country".

Peter Kichashki, Board Member at Institute of Modern Politics, Sofia, believes there is no such contradiction.

"It’s the opposition that wants to take society into a false debate whether we are pro-Russia, or against Russia. The Bulgarian people and the Bulgarian Government are Europe-oriented when it comes to the geostrategic point of view. The sociological research made by the sociological team of the Institute of Modern Politics in March proved that around 70% of the people here see the EU as something that we have to participate in, they don’t believe that we have to change our way of seeing the world and we have to get out of the EU or something like that.

But this doesn’t contradict in any way the traditional view that Russia is something like our big brother, not in the Orwellian sense of the word, but as a state, Russia has always been in front of Bulgaria. And I think that most of the people here are fond of Russia, but it doesn’t make them turn their heads away from the EU.

Actually, the Bulgarian Socialist Party that is traditionally related to Russia, lost the European elections on the 25th of May. And one of the reasons is because the Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin was very clear in translating the message that Bulgaria is supporting the EU measures in Ukraine. And this is contradictory to what a lot of the people here are thinking about Russia and the Ukrainian crisis. I think that most of the Bulgarian citizens think that Bulgaria should be more neutral when it comes to punishing Russia or being active in the Ukrainian crisis. European allies of Bulgaria have to be well aware that most people here are very fond of Russia, and we have close ties to Russia. So just because at this particular moment the EU is taking a point against Russia, we are not going to change our attitude towards Russia. We are going to stand by our national interest, and our national interest is that we are a member of the European Union, and we have to keep good relations with Russia. I don’t think that these two points, that are the main Bulgarian points of interest, are contradictory in any way".

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