Hanging in the balance: How to save Bulgaria’s foreign policy from political turmoil

Facing its sixth election in three years, Bulgaria’s political instability risks marginalising Sofia’s role within the EU. To avoid this, the campaigns of pro-European politicians in the country must not lose sight of Bulgaria’s international position

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, April 18, 2024. European Union leaders vowed on Wednesday to ramp up sanctions against Iran as concern grows that Tehran’s unprecedented attack on Israel could fuel a wider war in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Harry Nakos)
Bulgaria’s caretaker Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, April 18, 2024
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Harry Nakos

After a power-sharing agreement collapsed last month, Bulgaria has once again been thrown into political uncertainty. The country has appointed a new caretaker government, to be led by prime minister Dimitar Glavchev and snap elections were called for 9 June – the same day as the European Parliament election – making it the sixth time Bulgarians will head to the polls in just three years. The last five times resulted in a hung parliament, allowing the president, Rumen Radev, to wield a significant amount of power by appointing caretaker governments whenever the parties failed to reconcile in a regular one.

This instability is damaging Bulgaria’s international credibility. Political infighting risks weakening institutions and slowing the country’s EU integration. At the same time, it makes the government more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s influence: Radev’s pro-Russian views have already undermined Sofia’s alignment with the pro-Ukraine agenda of its Western allies.

In June last year, when two political rivals – the reformist coalition of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) and the centre-right coalition of Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria and Union of Democratic Forces (GERB-SDS) – united under a Euro-Atlantic and anti-corruption flag and agreed a rotating prime minister every nine months, Bulgaria’s chance at addressing these risks looked hopeful. Indeed, the first rotation of this government, lasting from June 2023 to this April, led by Nikolay Denkov (PP) translated into foreign policy achievements well received by the West: Bulgaria boosted its support for Ukraine and hosted President Zelensky, while Denkov visited Kyiv. In March, Bulgaria also joined the Schengen area via air and maritime borders, thanks to its progress on rule of law reforms. But this progress was cut short when the GERB politician set to take over the helm, Mariya Gabriel, withdrew her nomination over disastrous talks with PP-DB, which featured a major disagreement between the parties on anti-corruption reform and cabinet members.

Now as the European Parliament election and a snap national election near, and yet another caretaker government sits in Sofia, it is unlikely that Bulgaria’s tumultuous political scene will be changing anytime soon. Until it does, Bulgaria’s international reputation hangs in the balance: political instability can weaken the country’s institutions and the public’s belief in them, and slow down rule of law reform required for EU integration. Bulgaria still has Schengen land borders and the Eurozone to enter. The collapse of the power-sharing agreement has already delayed the latter. Any further delays to either goal could lead to EU and member state distrust in Bulgaria’s progress. It may also disillusion Bulgarians with their European future. Indeed, recent corruption scandals have led to low levels of public trust in the executive and legislative institutions. Ultimately, lack of progress on these reforms would allow Russia to exploit loopholes in Bulgarian institutions to and further distort the public debate.

A constant stream of elections easily descends into damaging and unpopular tit-for-tat politics, distracting those in Sofia from their seat at the EU table. In the upcoming elections, pro-European parties in Bulgaria must not lose sight of the bigger picture, especially amid the war in Ukraine and a potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. Campaigning on a pro-European platform that proves how a geopolitical Bulgaria is in the country’s best interests may neutralise actors who want to exploit the elections for populist goals and help alleviate growing political apathy.

A constant stream of elections easily descends into damaging and unpopular tit-for-tat politics, distracting those in Sofia from their seat at the EU table

Bulgaria’s pro-European parties should campaign on the European Union’s pressing geopolitical agenda and Bulgaria’s important place in it as an eastern flank country. This will have two benefits: raising public awareness on positive developments in Bulgaria’s social and economic life stemming from the country’s convergence with the EU and conveying a message to Europeans that Bulgaria is a trusted partner in the region.

Firstly, pro-European politicians should underscore how progress made to join Schengen has had a positive effect on Bulgaria’s institutional resilience. Recent constitutional changes in accordance with EU standards aim to ensure independence of the national judiciary, specifying and limiting the powers of the chief prosecutor, and limiting the role of the president in appointing a caretaker government. Efforts to join the Eurozone are also bearing fruit. Economic growth is stable, and inflation is declining. Bulgaria has the second lowest public debt in the EU and the government deficit is comfortably within the Maastricht criteria. These figures result in high employment levels and an increase in nominal salaries. The pro-European parties should communicate these developments as part of the EU agenda in a manner that underlines the EU’s positive role in achieving them. This could also discredit rival Eurosceptic arguments.

Secondly, Bulgaria’s support for Ukraine should be framed as part of the broader EU effort. Speaking to voters, pro-European candidates should not shy away from naming the security risks of a potential Ukrainian defeat. Speaking to their EU partners, they should highlight and leverage Bulgaria’s role in Kyiv’s war effort, despite the political turmoil: Bulgaria has the second highest number of total temporary protection beneficiaries per thousand people, at 26.7, just behind the Czech Republic’s at 35.2, while in  2023, the Bulgarian ammunition production exceeded the production of the rest of Europe combined.

These facts are often neglected against the backdrop of strong pro-Russian narratives dominating Bulgarian society and a history of politicians trying to juggle between the West and the Kremlin. Alongside pro-Russian propaganda, such opinions can also be traced back to energy and military dependencies. Recently leaked documents about the construction of TurkStream – the only pipeline that will carry Russian gas to Europe from the beginning of 2025, trace how Russia took full control of the construction of the pipeline during the last GERB-SDS government. Similarly, recent arms transfer data shows that up until 2019, Bulgaria did almost nothing to modernise its army and decouple from the dependence on Soviet-standard military weapons and equipment. Both these dependencies have increased the willingness of certain political parties in Bulgaria to echo Kremlin narratives. However, these narratives do not necessarily bring political gains. There has been no pro-Russian political formation that has survived throughout the years. Rather the opposite – the support for the Bulgarian Socialist party – which often embraces Russian narratives, fell from 28 per cent in 2017 to 9 per cent in 2023 while the nationalistic and pro-Russian political landscape has been flooded with short-lived projects, gaining support depending on the geopolitical circumstances. In challenging such narratives, pro-European candidates may have an easier job than appearances first suggest.

Finally, a firm stance on the war in Ukraine will give Bulgaria more leverage in strategic conversations within the next European institutions. It is in the EU’s interest to have a stable eastern flank country contributing to its geopolitical agenda in eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. There are several avenues for Bulgaria’s geopolitical case for Europe. First, Sofia must work towards restoring its image as a supporter of EU integration for Western Balkan countries. Sofia can start by being humble and helpful towards its neighbours in their accession. Second, Bulgaria must find its place in the EU’s new defence industrial strategy. The experience and expansion of the country’s military industry over the past years provide a solid base. Third, Bulgaria must be more active in the upcoming strategic conversation on EU-Turkey relations, further complicated by the urgency of the Cyprus settlement talks. In doing so, Bulgaria should leverage its close geographical, cultural, and economic relations with Turkey.

As geopolitics increasingly shapes domestic political agendas, Bulgaria’s pro-European politicians should not get bogged down in domestic turmoil. Instead, they should focus on converging with the EU’s ambitious geopolitical goals, not just through rhetoric but through tangible results and proactive and better communicated foreign policy. To achieve this, local policymakers should not shy away from highlighting that a stronger role for Bulgaria in the EU is in its national interest while European policymakers can support reformist actors in Bulgaria by clearly stating that Europe’s strategic interest lies in a stable pro-European Bulgaria.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head of Sofia office

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