Bulgaria’s European awakening
Bulgaria’s reformist government may have fallen, but this is a new era for the country. Policymakers should now build on Bulgarians’ growing sense of common purpose.
Bulgaria is one of several European countries in which the government recently fell after losing a confidence vote. Last month, the ruling coalition led by Kiril Petkov was ousted by opposition parties GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Revival – which worked alongside There is Such a People, a former member of the coalition. Following its formation in December 2021, the coalition brought together an eclectic mix of right-wing, centrist, socialist, and populist parties to challenge the status quo represented by former prime minister Boyko Borissov. Bulgarians will now face a snap election in autumn amid high inflation and an energy crisis. There is the added risk that the country will not receive its first payments under the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Facility – because the dissolution of parliament will leave it unable to pass the laws this process requires.
Petkov was only in office for a short time, but he and his deputy, Finance Minister Assen Vassilev, shook up the Bulgarian political scene. Members of their new We Continue the Change party benefited from a lack of exposure to the corrupting atmosphere of Bulgarian politics. While this also meant they were oblivious to the ferocity of the system they were taking on, they proved to be fearless in pursuing reform.
Like most European countries, Bulgaria has been shaken by Russia’s war on Ukraine. And, although the recent political turmoil in Sofia has gone largely unnoticed elsewhere in Europe, the Petkov government stood up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimatum to pay for Russian gas imports in roubles. Nonetheless, they failed to reach a consensus on sending weapons and other military aid to Ukraine.
For many years before Petkov came to power, Bulgaria’s leaders merely paid lip service to the EU and NATO. This prevented Bulgarian citizens from truly benefiting from their country’s membership of either alliance. Low living standards and widespread corruption ensured that Bulgaria continued to suffer from brain drain. A lack of national initiatives to implement EU policies deprived Bulgarians of the opportunity to actively participate in debates on the future of the union. And – as former defence minister Todor Tagarev said in a recent ECFR interview – outdated Soviet-era equipment compromised the Bulgarian armed forces’ interoperability with other NATO militaries. Indeed, the constant need to buy replacement parts for this ageing equipment poured money into the pockets of the Russian and Belarusian regimes.
Frustration with problems of this kind made many Bulgarian citizens susceptible to populist slogans. All the while, rampant corruption left the state vulnerable to external meddling.
To make matters worse, the EU tolerated the situation. Brussels did little to prevent Bulgaria’s politicians from pursuing their domestic agendas by exploiting the broken link between the EU and Bulgarian citizens.
It was in this context that Petkov’s reformist government came to power. He has since learned a hard lesson while trying to deliver on his election promise of “zero tolerance of corruption”: the fights against graft and Russian influence in Bulgaria are two sides of the same coin. Engaging in either battle comes at a high political cost, tending to topple anyone who makes the attempt.
Despite the ideological divergence in Petkov’s coalition – not least its inclusion of the traditionally pro-Russian socialists – Bulgaria took an unprecedentedly harsh stance on Russia, even expelling 70 of the country’s diplomats. Furthermore, during the Petkov government’s last weeks in power, it continued its fight against corruption. For instance, the government revealed in July how an organised crime group operating near the border with Turkey was flooding Bulgaria with potentially unsafe food products.
Petkov also began the arduous task of resolving Bulgaria’s spat with North Macedonia over history and language. The first step towards resolving the quarrel came when Bulgaria lifted its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks with the EU – an obstacle that had largely benefited Russia and Serbia. The outgoing French presidency of the Council of the EU helped the sides find common ground, agreeing to include Sofia’s conditions in the negotiation framework. Bulgarian leaders sold the compromise to voters at home as a European response to Bulgaria’s demands. This approach shifted public attitudes towards North Macedonia’s accession – allowing the European narrative to triumph over a nationalistic discourse.
Bulgarian policymakers now have a responsibility to ensure that this shift is reflected in Bulgaria’s approach to its strategic interests in the Western Balkans. To do so, they will need the support of more powerful EU allies such as Germany, which has a strong economic presence and a positive image in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia’s brutality in Ukraine helped persuade Bulgarians of the benefits of EU membership. In response to EU sanctions on Russia, Moscow cut off its natural gas deliveries to Bulgaria in late April – which came as a slap in the face for Bulgarians who tended to sympathise with the Kremlin. Bulgaria was forced to end its considerable dependence on Russian gas overnight. Petkov’s government immediately started exploring alternative suppliers, such as the United States (for liquefied natural gas) and Azerbaijan, while Vassilev began to call for an EU agreement on gas procurement. This showed the public that previous ruling parties had served Russia’s interests in the energy market – that, for a small economy such as Bulgaria’s, energy diversification can require strong political will but comes with relatively little economic pain.
As Bulgaria heads towards yet another general election – the fourth in little more than a year – policymakers in Sofia should build on this growing sense of common purpose. They should focus on the EU as a mechanism through which to secure a higher standard of living, implement a green transition, and continue the fight against corruption.
The outgoing government might have underestimated both the extent of Russian influence in the country and the power of Bulgarian institutional traditions as legacies of its monarchist, communist, and democratic past. The government fell not because of the quarrel with North Macedonia or incompetent management of the state budget, as There is Such a People leader Slavi Trifonov claimed. Rather, the government was undone by resistance to its attempts to expose the toxic links between corruption and Russian influence, which have caused Bulgaria to lag behind many other EU countries for years. There is nothing remarkable about the backlash. And it should not be a great cause for concern: this is a new era in Bulgarian politics – one in which the country will require support from its European partners but will have more to offer them in return.
Bulgarians have experienced a European awakening, with many of them now feeling that they truly belong in the EU family. After three general elections in 2021 – and the spectacular failure of former showman Trifonov’s populist project – Bulgaria has the opportunity to become another European success story.
To ensure this happens, policymakers will need to maintain the momentum of the last few months. And there are signs in Sofia that this is achievable. As ECFR’s Arturo Varvelli and Teresa Coratella recently argued in the similar case of Italy, Bulgaria has been so quick to abandon its image as a marginalised, pro-Russian EU member state that there seems little chance it will turn back.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.