The end of tit-for-tat politics in Bulgaria

In an environment in which European and American interests are not always the same, it is short-sighted and dangerous for Bulgarian leaders to question their country’s geopolitical alignment

Deputy Director
Head, ECFR Sofia
Boyko Borissov, Angela Merkel at Sofia Tech Park ahead of the EU leaders' informal dinnerEU2018BG Bulgarian Presidency CC BY

Joe Biden’s election as US president prompted many positive reactions across Europe. Citizens and politicians alike seemed equally relieved by the changing of the guard in the White House. As shown by a survey that the European Council on Foreign Relations recently commissioned in 11 European states, 53 per cent of citizens believe that Biden will bring positive change to their countries, while 54 per cent share the view that Donald Trump destabilised the world.

The contrast with public opinion in Bulgaria is significant: according to data gathered by Alpha Research in November 2020, only 27 per cent of the Bulgarians believe that the situation globally became worse during Trump’s presidency.

BG: Thinking about the US presidential elections, for each of the following statements, please indicate whether you agree or disagree, and how strongly. 

And, although neither Bulgarians nor other Europeans vote in US elections, the change in Washington will have an impact in Europe. Biden intends to contain China and Russia, to restore the West as an alliance of democracies, and to stabilise NATO.

“This means keeping NATO’s military capabilities sharp, while also expanding our capacity to take on new, non-traditional threats like weaponized corruption”, Biden said in his first foreign policy speech as a candidate in 2019.

This is a clear message to corrupt leaders and autocrats: the end of ‘tit-for-tat’ politics whereby one will be left alone in exchange for making large military procurements. (In October 2019, Bulgaria approved the purchase of eight Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets for $1.25 billion, the country’s biggest defence overhaul since the cold war. In November 2019, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited Trump in the White House.

Which of these statement best reflects your view?

“There is a lack of political determination to fight corruption in Bulgaria, and corruption is dangerous for national security because it makes countries more vulnerable to external influence”, claimed a representative of the US Embassy in Sofia last week. This was a direct criticism of, and a message to, the authorities.

Like citizens of other EU countries, Bulgarians understand that Europe must have its own military capabilities, which can contribute to NATO’s power. In an interview for ECFR’s Sofia office, Marta Dassù – a member of the experts’ group that made recommendations on the future of NATO – said that the convergence of risk assessments among the members of the Alliance is key to its existence. In other words, it is vital that NATO members recognise China and Russia as the main common threats they face, even if their responses to these threats differ.

It seems that, for pluralities across the 11 surveyed countries, it is important that their states remain independent and neutral – to a certain extent – in a conflict between the United States and China or Russia. Bulgarians are no exception.

Even though most Europeans’ mistrust of the US as a partner skyrocketed during Trump’s presidency, they tend to believe that the country is likely to fix its internal problems and to invest in addressing international issues such as climate change, instability in the Middle East, and threats to European security.

In Bulgaria, this belief is shared by supporters of GERB and Democratic Bulgaria more than those with other political affiliations.

Which of these statements best reflects your view?

The striking differences

Problems with the media environment in Bulgaria, which is permeable to Russian propaganda and straightforward fake news, partly explain the great discrepancies between Bulgarians and other Europeans. But the largest share of the blame goes to the representatives of institutions that, in recent years, have defined the national interest and the strategic goals of Bulgaria in increasingly blurry terms.

One can see this from Bulgarians’ responses to the question: “which countries are most important for your country to have a good relationship with?” While a large majority of Europeans name Germany (which is the main trade and political partner of Bulgaria), and Poles and the British say the US (followed by Germany), Bulgarian respondents largely point to Russia.

Which countries are most important for your country to have a good relationship with?

Similarly, when asked which states will become stronger than the US in the next ten years, Bulgarians name not only China (23 per cent) but also Russia (20 per cent). In comparison, 15 per cent and 3 per cent of Germans hold these views respectively.

For a country on Europe’s periphery such as Bulgaria, it is crucial for the political class to clearly define its alignment and interests in an era of multipolarity. Most countries in the European Union’s neighbourhood are looking for ways to latch on to the bloc, aiming to increase their political power and defence capabilities. It is no surprise that countries in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership are worried about the EU’s unwillingness to share its sovereignty with them.

Luckily for Bulgaria, the EU believed in the “civilisational choice” to join the bloc that the country made in the late 1990s and the years that followed (as then-president Petar Stoyanov called it). Today, Bulgarian leaders’ efforts to question the geopolitical alignment of their country is not only short-sighted but also dangerous.

Sweeping contentious issues under the carpet will not work anymore; the era of “the art of the deal” is over

In the coming months, Biden’s team will take immediate steps to contain Russia and China – a scenario for which the EU is preparing a response. By signing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment last December (at the end of the German presidency of the Council of the EU), Brussels chose to protect European producers but also to act an equal partner of Washington in relations with Beijing. Following the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the arrests of thousands of protesters in Russia, the EU may implement new sanctions on the country.

In this complex environment in which European and American interests do not always align, Bulgaria will have to start thinking about – and acting appropriately on – the fundamental issues on which the West can start functioning in a coordinated manner once again.

Sweeping contentious issues under the carpet will not work anymore; the era of “the art of the deal” is over.

This commentary was made possible through the support of the NATO Public Diplomacy Division but does not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Public Diplomacy Division. It was first published in Bulgarian in Dnevnik.

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

Author

Deputy Director
Head, ECFR Sofia

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